Leadership Credibility: Do you have it?

Credibility refers to the objective and subjective components of the believability of a source. In the modern fire service credibility has two critical components that cannot really be really faked — trustworthiness and expertise. Both of these are easily faked for a short period of time but they become transparent very quickly.


Leadership credibility grows when you and your crew (team) are productive. The productivity of leadership credibility is when you are able to help others meet their goals and help mentor them. When you as a team in the fire service are productive you are generally viewed a winner or what I often hear people say, “Pipe Swingers.”

It is important to understand that as a fire officer you are a leader within the organization. It is imperative that you understand and teach that no individual is greater than the team. Babe Ruth stated, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success.” You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they do not play well together, the team won’t be as successful as the potential they collectively hold. I am completely convinced that the team working together is the essential component of the fire service. Unfortunately, we often see individuals who think the department revolves around them or they are the “Negative Nellies” who can find fault in everything. I often hear the phrase “if you handed them a million dollar check they would complain because they had to go to the bank to cash it.” Most of these individuals want to be individual superstars not on a superstar team!

Being a leader of a team is just like any relationship, it has to be worked at continuously. Often when we analyze where we are in a relationship, we find we have abandoned the love we first had. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; regroup and start doing the work you did at first, in other words refuel the passion for the job!

However, having talented personnel or team members does not automatically guarantee success. The difference is when you as a leader develop their predicated knowledge, skills and abilities as well as molding them as a team. But to develop a team, you have to be followed as the leader, thus your credibility. A successful leader must have a well-defined vision of where the organization or team is going. Often times you can measure vision as it is in direct proportion to accomplishment. As we begin to develop the future generation of fire service personnel, we must navigate that road with vision. Vision is like a navigational system guiding you precisely from point “A” to point “B”. With vision we must be focused on the mission of the team as well. Like vision, the mission gives a successful leader a sense of direction and purpose. This same mission gives personnel and future leaders the same sense of direction and purpose.

People will follow you if they trust you. Trustworthiness is a critical characteristic for a leader. I frequently hear in leadership classes that trust is an increasingly scarce trait in which others see in the fire service leaders today now more than ever. Fire service leaders who develop high trust relationships within their “team” and organizations outshine the competition. Leaders, aka officers, whose team members praise the high levels of trust within their team, are in fact, among the highest performers. Bottom line, as a leader for you to have credibility members of the team must have a profound trust in you.

When you’re an expert at something, “you show expertise or an exceptional knowledge of the subject.” Expertise has obvious roots in the word expert. Just about any interest or field has a place for experts and the fire service is no different. Just as one leader may have expertise in engine company operations, another may have expertise in truck company operations. Working hard or immersing yourself in a specialty has the potential to lead to expertise, which comes through both study and hands-on experience. As leaders you must show expertise in many areas but the most important is servant leadership.

True leadership begins with serving. No role, position, job, task or calling of leadership in Emergency Services can be effective unless there is first a willingness to serve others. Many want successful positions, ranks and roles in leadership, but not everyone wants to serve. Proper serving in leadership begins with a proper attitude.

History’s greatest achievements have been made by individuals who excelled only slightly over the masses of other individuals in their respective fields. I am reminded of this when you look at athletes. Most have significant levels of talent. The same is true for the fire service. Most of our personnel have strong predicated skills, abilities and knowledge. So what puts the people excelling in front of the others? Most times that small difference is their attitude.

Remember this: If you aren’t a proven producer, you will not attract or keep others if you do not have expertise and credibility. That is why it is so important that you lead by true example. Remember the Theodore Roosevelt quote, “no one cares what you know until they know just how much you care.”

Douglas Cline is Chief of the Training and Professional Development Division with Horry County Fire Rescue. He is the Executive Editor for The Fire Officer and Executive Director for the Command Institute in Washington D.C. A 36 year fire and emergency services veteran as well as a well-known international speaker, Cline is a highly published author of articles, blogs and textbooks for both fire and EMS. As a chief officer, Cline is a distinguished authority of officer development and has traveled internationally delivering distinguished programs on leadership and officer development. He also has a diverse line of training videos on leadership, rapid intervention team training, vehicle fires, hose line management, and emergency vehicle operations and fire ground safety and survival.

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