Leadership: How Do We Build Ourselves

(Writers Note: This is the third in a series of articles focused on leadership in the fire service. It is directed more for the volunteer side, but certain principals can be applied to the career side as well.)


Over the past few editions, we have been discussing leadership in the fire service. It is a constant and popular topic. During the first article, we discussed what leadership is and what it is not. There has been a lot of misconceptions about what leadership is or what it should be. The second article we went through some of the major weaknesses or mistakes that leaders make. This edition let us discuss how to build ourselves as leaders.


One of the biggest things a leader can do to improve themselves is to constantly learn. You may be asking yourself if I mean a college education. However, learning is a lot more than just a degree. So how can we learn?

First, advanced education is very powerful. This can be working towards an associate or bachelor’s degree, taking various courses whether online or in person or any combination of education. This is not always easy, but is very much a way to improve ourselves. Many will say that an advanced college degree is not worth anything. However, as a college graduate and now an adjunct professor, a college education is more than just the learning. This can also lead to building a great network and many other similar benefits. When you are searching or considering trainings and college degrees make sure to investigate the school or who is the sponsoring agency. We must make sure that the juice is worth the squeeze and not waste time gaining a degree or training that is not built properly or up to standards.

The second way that we can learn is through reading. This is a huge passion of mine and one in which I share with many others. Right now, I am reading “Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn” by John C. Maxwell. Mr. Maxwell discusses the differences between losing, weakness and mistakes and learning from situations where things did not go the way we expected or worse. Find time, even if it is for five minutes a day, to read. There are even fire service book clubs on Facebook and other media that you can join and learn with a group through reading. If you need a good book to read, do not hesitate to reach out to me as I have loads of good suggestions.

Finally, an area where we can learn is to build a group of like-minded people to discuss topics with. You can even call them a Board of Directors if you wish. We all have different education levels, experiences and roles. Would you like to go through something not knowing the best way to get through it and the uncertainty or would you rather go through it with the knowledge and experience of others who can guide you? I think you would agree with me that the latter is the safer and smarter bet. Networking and having these people around can only benefit you when the right people are chosen for this important role to us.

Our Staff

For this part of our discussion I am going to refer to volunteers, members of our truck we supervise, or anyone that supervise by position or by nature of
virtue as staff.

Too many times we purposely or inadvertently do not value our staff. However, our staff can make or break us. They can make us look smart or if not allowed to shine themselves, can make us look bad. No matter what the situation, we cannot do this job alone. Firefighting is a team sport. We need our staff, and they need a good leader.

First, we must focus on providing good expectations to our staff. We cannot expect them to succeed and be efficient if they are not given this guidance. These minimum standards should outline what they are responsible for and guidance of what actions are allowable. Once this is accomplished then we can hold them accountable. More importantly than that though is we can find ways to build them up through a fair and just manner.

Another important point when dealing with staff is to not micromanage them. If we have these staff members as part of our agency, we should be able to trust them — if we do not trust them then we need to review our process of adding people to our agency. We must be humble and realize that others may know more than us in varying aspects. This does not make us look weak; it makes us look smarter and in essence more efficient than through micromanaging. Through the above-mentioned expectations, we should give the staff those parameters and ensure they have what they need to be able to succeed and then let them do the work.

Personally, I use a football analogy for this. I am the quarterback and leading the team. I have loads of staff who are the players. I tell the team we want to score a touchdown (objective). I tell them to stay away from the sidelines (expectations). Then I hand the ball off or pass to one of my staff members. They may run through the middle or go to the sidelines to run towards the goal line. They may do spins to get away from the defense or they may try to outrun the defense. That is up to them. They know the best way to get there with what we have. Let them score the touchdown.

This is probably a controversial thought but to me it is a way to empower your staff. If my team succeeds, then it was the staff that did it and I put them on a pedestal. We come together and discuss all the aspects that went into the success and try to duplicate them where possible. If they make a mistake, then it is my fault. This builds unity for the team. It shows the staff that I care for them and do not want them crucified in front of clients. This does not mean they are not held accountable. This happens behind closed doors. This can be a huge morale builder for the staff.

Finally, we need to learn how to handle mistakes from our staff. To me there are two types of mistakes. The first is the worst. This is where our staff do not think out their decisions, do not care about what they are doing and are simply careless. These are preventable and should not occur. These should be handled fairly yet justly through some type of learning, training or discipline. The second type of mistake is one I can live with. This mistake is where a staff member thinks things through, asks for assistance and in general does things right but the result was not good. In this they did not do anything particularly wrong. The goal when this happens is to ensure that our staff — and us in cases — learn from the situation. This makes it where it was a learning experience and not a mistake.

Closing Thoughts

There are lots of other aspects that we need to do as leaders in our roles. However, the aforementioned are ones in which many leaders can improve by leaps and bounds. We should constantly look at areas like this that we can improve. If we are not improving, then we are failing ourselves and our staff.

It is my hope that this series of articles on leadership has been valuable to you. Good luck and keep on improving and watch your success continue.

Until next time, be safe.

David Hesselmeyer began his emergency services career in 1997. He is credentialed as a Firefighter, Paramedic, Rescue Technician, North Carolina Executive Emergency Manager, and as an International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Certified Emergency Manager. He graduated from East Carolina University with a Master of Public Administration (MPA). He owns On Target Preparedness, LLC which is an emergency services consulting firm serving public and private agencies in preparing and responding to disasters. He is a member of the Buies Creek Fire Department in North Carolina. He writes for multiple emergency services publications.

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