Fire Service Leadership: Leading by Walking Around

June 13, 2024
Michael Bargeron believes the best leaders learn their members, processes and set aside their ego, to ensure that the crew has the support that they need.

Leadership by walking around, or management by walking around, is a familiar tool. However, often, it’s overlooked by higher-level chief officers. Too often, the higher up that officers get, the more they are caught up in tasks and outcomes. They can lose sight of those who they ask to get the job done for them. This leads to claims of leaders “who forget where they came from” or to apathetic leadership that then lends itself to “performance punishment,” where the chief officer assigns tasks to those who will get the tasks done and forgets the effect that might have or the message that it sends.

Most, if not all, chief officers have all been there: Assign something to a specific shift, because they don’t have to worry about the assignment getting done, but how often do chief officers look at the who, what, where and why that pertains to the other two nonperforming shifts? Simply put, chief officers would know if they got out of their office and talked to the crew.



What is leadership by walking around, you might ask? Simply put, it’s chief officers going out and getting dirty with the men and women they charged with carrying out their mission. It’s essential to distinguish this from micromanaging and to see how it can be viewed that way if improperly done.

The critical aspect of leading by walking around is to listen more than one speaks. In his leadership book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic” (Simon & Schuster), Steven Covey writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Don’t step out on the apparatus bay floor and start “should-ing” people to death. In other words, learn their process and don’t impose on them how you would do things. Ask about the task and help, doing it their way, and only offer input if something is unsafe or you’re asked.

What do leaders have to gain from doing this? Direct and honest communication is fostered, mainly because the leader goes into the team’s environment, not vice versa. Line personnel tend to feel more relaxed and are more open in less formal environments. That isn’t to say that they’ll just open up and flood the leader with all of their problems. The leader still must work to establish and grow communication. Doing this helps to start the ball rolling.

Another great benefit is a leader gets a direct observation of how messages are relayed and orders are carried out and the day-to-day effect of the leader’s decisions on the crew’s work life. The key to gaining this insight directly correlates with a leader’s ability to listen, observe, and be vulnerable to the crew’s thoughts and criticism.


The echo chamber

Leaders must set aside their ego and realize that if they are invested genuinely in the outcome, they must commit to listening to the good and the bad. Too often, leaders place themselves in an echo chamber and don’t want to be told that there’s another way. This clouds a leader’s judgment and might prompt that person to label specific shifts or personnel as slackers, negative or not worth the leader’s time, without understanding that what the leader asks is too much and can’t be done immediately. The task can and will get done, but a leader must remember that other things are going on, including calls, daily duties and personal lives, and what seems like a tiny thing to the leader is the fourth or fifth significant thing the leader dropped on the crew in a short time.

By walking around and immersing themselves with the crews, leaders can understand the effect of what they ask of members of the crew on top of what they already ask of them daily.


It’s about family

Another key point for leaders to remember when they are out and about is that the visits should be unplanned and unstructured. Leaders want to see the crew in their element. Now, I'm not saying to be unprofessional, but take the starch out of your collar and relax. Let the crew members have their time and cut a few appropriate jokes with them. Run some calls, wash a truck, test a hydrant. Remember, the fire service is about family.

Leaders must take the time to let their crew know that they’re there for them. Ensure that they have the support that they need and, most importantly, that they know how to access it. Tools are excellent, but if members don’t know where they are or how to use them, the tools are kind of pointless.

Leaders should highlight the benefit of the department’s employee assistance program and reiterate their open door policy. Leaders should take the time with their folks that the leaders wished someone would have taken with them.


Listen, observe, reflect

At the end of the day, the benefit of leading by walking around all stems from leaders’ ability to listen, observe and, ultimately, reflect. They must commit to the process, or all of the possible positive aspects quickly will be doubled negatively.

Remember, this is about the members. Walking around is used to see how daily actions and requests affect the members so that they can be served better, which, in turn, means that the community is served better by one cohesive unit.

About the Author

Michael Bargeron

Michael Bargeron Jr. is the deputy fire chief of the Hanahan, SC, Fire Department. He serves as the department’s fire Marhsal, EMS director and EMS training officer. Bargeron teaches for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He is a member of the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team FL-4. Bargeron has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern and a master’s degree in public administration from Belhaven University.

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