Taking a pre-school approach to leadership and management in the fire service

CarolinaFireJournal - By John Scott Loftis
By John Scott Loftis
01/23/2014 -

I have taken many paths simultaneously in my life and all have led me to the same place. I find it truly ironic at how closely related the many aspects of our individual life are. I am not only a Christian, but also a husband, a father and a firefighter. I have often found myself in deep thought pondering the many facets that I truly have, and how they all have an overwhelming commonality when you truly analyze the intricate details of each.

I find that my mind has a tendency to try to file certain behaviors, problems and thoughts by their affiliation. I also found that I was often times trying to use different methods to mitigate those situations and issues based on their affiliation. If I had an issue that needed to be dealt with involving someone from the public, I would have a tendency to try to put on my “Christian” hat. If an issue arose that dealt with my family, I would put on my “Husband” or “Father” hat. If that issue dealt with the fire service I would then have to choose between my figurative “Chief’s” helmet for administrative issues when dealing with the bureaucracy, or my “Black” hat when dealing with issues that required a firefighter’s standpoint.


This mentality had created a humongous burden for me that affected all I had contact with. If you are taking a similar approach in life like I was, it is almost universal in the fire service. It is no wonder that the mental health professionals delight at the chance to get to study or work with firefighters. It is often times said that the firefighter’s brain does not rationalize things the same way that “normal” people do. It is also often said that we are “wired differently.” We do have a tendency to rush into situations when the logical reaction would be to flee.

I am writing this to let other fire service members and affiliates see that they are not alone. In fact, we are all in this together. I do not claim to have all of the answers that you may seek. I am still learning, and plan on continuing to educate myself at every opportunity. My plan is to provide a simple approach to the often-complicated subjects of leadership and management in the fire service. I am going to do so by relating them to the very basic things that we should have all learned in pre-school. Please join me for the experience of trying to solve some of the most complicated things that we face as adults while looking at it through the eyes of a child. A child’s view is not clouded by the abstract view of experiences and assumptions. A child takes things for face value, and therefore all things are either black or white. It is we, the adults, who have created the many shades of gray.

The first thing I want to ensure is that we all understand that there is an extreme difference between leadership and management. Leadership is the ability to inspire other people to want to perform their assigned task under you guidance, either directly or indirectly. Leadership in its purest form means that people want to do what you want them to do because they trust, like and respect you. Leadership is an individual journey that must start within. If leadership does not begin at the individual level, it will never begin. However, if leadership ends at the individual level, it will end. Not only must you start the journey individually, you must share along the way. If you don’t do both, there will be no lasting benefit.

Management on the other hand is how you make inanimate objects perform to produce the wanted outcome. For example, if I want my vehicle to stop I apply the brake. The management principle is the pressure that I apply to the brake for the correct outcome. If I apply the brake too hard, the vehicle stops short of my intended stopping place. If I apply the brake to softly, the vehicle does not stop in the correct location, and often times a collision will occur. If I apply the brake with just the right amount of force, the vehicle stops exactly where want it.

To make it simple — you lead people and manage things. This is a key piece of advice that is missing in today’s fire service. People are often times described as not having people skills, most of the time this is the perception when the person that is being described has tried to manage people rather than lead them.

Rule No. 1: Be Nice

This was generally the first lesson that was taught in the pre-school environment. It sets the foundation for which most other rules build on. It is really quite simple, if you are nice to people it tends to help calm them down. It also helps people to be more receptive to the information that you are trying to impart to them. This is also the foundation on which the biblical principles that I believe sum up to. Jesus told us in the Holy Bible that the greatest commandment was to love one another as I have loved you. The reason behind this was that if you tried not to break this one commandment, it would help to keep you from breaking the others. Think about that for a minute, and you will see that it is true.

We all learned the golden rule is to treat others the way that you want to be treated. This brings us back to loving one another, or in simple words being nice. Being nice will help to diffuse many problems before they start. I have always tried to do this. I haven’t always been successful, but when I have, it works.

I had a fellow firefighter once tell me, “Scott, I don’t think that I could stay mad at you no matter what.” I told him that I greatly appreciated his kind words. He then went on to further explain, “No, I mean no matter what you did.” I really appreciated his words. This is the power of being nice consistently. If you practice being nice on a consistent basis, you can pretty much survive any situations that arise. Now please don’t think that as long as you are nice, you can do whatever you want. We all have responsibilities to ourselves, co-workers, friends and families, and the general public that we protect. All I am trying to say is that being nice consistently will go a long way in assisting you to lead the people who depend on you.

Rule No. 2: Always Share Your Things

As a kid, and sometimes an adult, this was and is one of the hardest rules to follow, but if you will refer to rule No. 1, it can be a piece of cake. By nature, humans are selfish creatures. We consume, and when you consume this means that you need a supply. As both a human and a consumer I find that it goes against my very nature to give away, or share that which I have worked to acquire. This is the reason that we have such a hard time with accepting that taxes are required to be paid by us. This has been an epic battle since biblical times. Once again I refer you to the words of Jesus Christ from the Holy Bible who stated that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. The same principle applies here. If the fire service needs it, and you have the ability to share it without causing injury to yourself or others, then you should share it. This encompasses everything from equipment, on down to knowledge. Just make sure that you have the authority to share whatever it is that you plan on sharing. This principle should be followed both inside, as well as outside of your department.

Rule No. 3: Play Well With Others

This rule, learning to play well with others, is a little difficult. This rule can also be made a little easier if you will follow Rule No. 1 and Rule No. 2. If you are nice, and you share your things, it should be a little easier to play well with others. However, with any human interaction there is always the tendency for complications, because in addition to humans being selfish consumers, we are also an emotional bunch. Any time that emotions are involved it is going to require patience.

Playing well with others will also require relationships. The key to building relationships is being sure to build the right kind of relationship. In science there are three types of relationships:

  • Mutualistic Relationships: Relationships where both parties benefit from the relationship.
  • Commensalistic Relationships: Relationships where neither party benefits from the relationship.
  • Parasitic Relationships: Relationships where one party benefits, and the other party is harmed by the relationship.

As you can tell there is only one of these three that is a productive relationship. Do your best to only form mutualistic relationships and you will do well. If you find yourself in a commensalistic relationship, do not waste your time; you are taking valuable time away from another productive relationship. If you find yourself serving as a host in a parasitic relationship, you will feel better once you get rid of the parasite. If you are in a parasitic relationship and you are not the host, well then you should simply be ashamed of yourself. Those around you and the fire service all deserve better.

Rule No. 4: Pay Attention

Paying attention was also another rule, which caused me considerable heartburn when I was younger. I had the preconceived notion that I was going to go my own way, so I would figure it out as I went. Oh how I wish now that I had paid more attention then. I would have saved a tremendous amount of both heartache and money. They say that a smart man learns from his mistakes, but a wise man learns from another’s mistakes. I used to be smart, now I am working extremely hard on becoming wise. If you will pay attention to others, you can learn from them. If you pay attention to the small details and trends, you can keep the train on track. Successful people pay attention to the small details and trends. Innovators watch so intently that often times they notice them first. Paying close attention can help you to become an innovator. You owe it to the fire service to pay attention. It may help save a life as well as a career.

Rule No. 5: Do Neat Work

When I was young I could never understand the importance of doing neat work. It was when I was considerably older that I came to realize that doing neat work helped to show that you spent considerable time while completing the task. It also showed that you did not have tunnel vision while completing the task. That means that you understood Rule No. 4. It also however showed that you took pride in whatever you were doing. This is important because it reflected your character. It also showed that you had respect for whoever you were doing the work for. This also goes back to another biblical principal. This principal is found in Proverbs 12:24 which states, “Work hard and become a leader; be lazy and become a slave.” Doing neat work means that you are not lazy. It will speak volumes of your character if you always do neat work. It also shows that if you took the time to do neat work, the work was not an inconvenience to you. Nothing looks worse than something thrown together just to get by. Sloppy work virtually screams that you treated the task as an inconvenience.

Rule No. 6: Always Clean Up After Yourself

This is another rule, which takes some getting used to. Some folks never do, just ask anyone who has worked on shift. There is nothing worse than having to clean up someone else’s mess. This statement includes actual as well as figurative messes. I have been through a few regime changes in my career and it always amazes me at the sheer number of “messes” that have been left behind for someone else to deal with. This rule must be followed in every situation both inside and outside your department. While you shouldn’t leave messes for others to clean up, it is however doing the right thing when you help someone else clean up their mess. This is what is known as sharing the burden, and it goes right along with Rule No. 1, and Rule No. 3. Even though it is not your responsibility to clean up someone else’s mess, it will go a long way in helping to improve relationships and improve the fire service. Just try not to leave your own mess behind in the process.

Rule No. 7: Eat Right

I know that some people will look at this rule and wonder what this has to do with leadership. The fact is that if you do not take care of yourself, you won’t be equipped to take care of anyone else. If you eat right, the simple fact is that it could help to usher in other healthy lifestyle changes. This is important because the fire service is counting on you to help lead it. You can’t lead from six feet underground. Eat a well-balanced diet to help your body deal with the extreme stressors of this line of work. If you give your body and mind the right kinds of fuel, it will run more efficient. If your body and mind run more efficiently, you will think more clearly, and perform better physically as well. It is important that you eat a balanced diet so that you will stay healthier, and in turn hang around longer to impart more of your knowledge to those who follow. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to your family and friends. You owe it to your coworkers. Most of all you owe it to the fire service.

Rule No. 8: Get Plenty of Rest

Rest is an important factor in your well-being. Adequate rest periods will improve not only your physical health, but your mental health as well. Rest not only consist of sleep cycles, it also entails taking brief moments away just to get your mind off things, and to help mitigate the effects of the cumulative stress that is associated with this profession. These momentary breaks can simply mean walking out of the office and spending a few minutes with the guys on the floor. This will not only get your mind off of the administrative problems, it also gives you a chance to strengthen the bonds that you share with the very folks that make you look good.

That being said, it is also imperative that you do get adequate sleep as much as possible. The inability to sleep at night can be one of the first warning signs that your cumulative stress levels are too high. As firefighters we are trained to believe that there is not a problem that we can’t solve. When we do run across a problem that we are struggling with, we will try to work it out ourselves multiple times before asking for help, if we ever ask at all. This in itself is not healthy. Don’t let stress stand in the way of a good night’s sleep. Some turn to alcohol or other things to wind down enough to sleep somewhat. If this is ever the case, do yourself, your family and friends, your co-workers, and the fire service a favor by getting professional help immediately. Stay well rested, and get plenty of sleep when you can. Doing this will improve your abilities to keep leading the fire service.

Rule No. 9: Play Often

Playing was one of the best parts of being a kid. Unfortunately this is a skill that we sometimes lose, as we get older. We get so caught up in the game that we forget to take the time to play. All playing doesn’t have to be juvenile. You can build training programs that are fun and increase job function at the same time. For example, there is a training scenario where you take a 55 gallon drum and partially fill it with water. You lay the drum on its side. You get two hose lines, and put teams on each. You then use fire streams to try to move the barrel past the other team. It works kind of like soccer, or even football. It gives the guys a chance to blow off some steam. It keeps them active. You are doing all of this while improving their job skills at the same time.

If a vacation isn’t in the cards for you for a while, have a department dinner, or family fun day. You can do this as a department, or as a single shift. It will improve relationships with the other family members that share their loved ones with you every shift. The best times that I remember growing up revolved around my grandfather’s fire station. We cooked barbecue chicken plates and sold them to raise funds. It improved our relationship in the community. It strengthened bonds within the department. It also earned well-needed money for the department. Kick your shoes off, have a little fun, and remember what it was like to just play. It won’t take long for that inner child to show up again.

Rule No. 10: Learn All You Can

Often times as we progress up to the chief officer level, we neglect one of our fundamental rules that we learned as children, which is learn all that you can. Never let a learning opportunity pass you by. You owe it to those around you to never quit the educational journey. Do not limit yourself to just the fire service. If you broaden your horizons, you will see that there is a tremendous amount of information all around you that could revolutionize the fire service. I have come to believe that our tendency to focus strictly on fire service related education is the main reason that we consistently stay at least one step behind technology. I by no means am saying that we don’t need to study the history of the fire service. I think that should be a requirement to begin your formal training in the fire service. I am simply saying don’t stop there. Read a book once in a while. Take the time to appreciate all of the other arts and sciences that surround you. You will be a better person and leader for it.


If you have taken the time to read this far, I want to thank you. I tried to deliver this information in a format that would be easy to pick up and put down. My hope is that it inspires you to be a better leader in the fire service. If this work accomplishes that, for one person, then it is worth every second that I spent putting it together. I hope that your journey in the fire service is both a long and prosperous one. I hope that time with family and friends this past Christmas season has served to revive the fire within you. My hope is that with this New Year, you will once again recommit to continual improvement and growth. May God bless and keep you until we cross paths once again.

Scott Loftis is a third generation firefighter from Upstate South Carolina. He began his formal journey in the fire service over 20 years ago. He is very active in the areas of training and leadership development. Loftis currently serves as the Vice Chairman of the S.C. Fire Academy Advisory Committee, the Training and Education Committee of the SC State Firefighters’ Association, The Planning Committee of the South Carolina State Firefighter’s Association, and the Technical Training Committee of the South Carolina State Firefighter’s Association and serves as the Chief of Training for Oconee County Emergency Services. He can be contacted at[email protected] or 864-844-6001.
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