Leadership: Our Biggest Failures

(This is the second 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.) Click to read. image

Last edition, we spent time reviewing what the definition of leadership is using dictionary and other references. This led us to talk about what leadership isn’t and then what it is. If you have spent any length of time in a professional setting, I think we can all concur on what leadership looks like and what it doesn’t. The issue at hand though is that our definition can be off tremendously.

My travels have led me to question our definition as well. I have seen leaders who consider themselves great in that position due to the fact that they have read the newest leadership book. Yet use the book only to prove how awesome they are. I have seen leaders fail to develop any skills from the start and fail miserably as they do not care to put the effort into the process.

So many times, we fail to take the action that we need to in order to succeed.

Let’s take a few minutes to discuss some of these major failures we do in the fire service regarding leadership.

Patronage and Politics

This is a tremendous failure in the volunteer world of leadership and can be also in the career side. How does your department choose their officers (i.e. leaders)?

This is done so many different ways it is confusing to keep straight. There are departments that choose officers based on how much they are liked through a popularity contest; excuse me, I mean a popular vote. Normally this leads to what I call “politics” prior to elections where those wanting a position are making allies so they can get enough votes to obtain that much wanted officer position. This truly hurts our younger members as they are often preyed on and influenced to vote in a certain way; whether right or wrong.

One department I had experience with actually had more politics involved than that. They would initially vote for their Board of Directors for the following year. Then at some point that board, not even being in their term of servantship, made decisions on whom they would put into their officer positions. Everyone scrambled to get to be a member of the board thereby increasing their chances of being an officer.

We could go on and on concerning this. Our failure comes from allowing anything other than the best and most effective to become officers and therefore lead the department and its members.

You can say similar stuff when it comes to career officers. Spend some time reviewing how officers are selected and there are always holes where they can sneak someone into the position without anyone noticing.

Lack of Leadership Training

I have had the privilege of being an officer in several departments over the years. Each time that I was put into the role, I chose to do something difficult. I made the time and effort to finding a way to better myself as a leader. Does this mean that I became a superb and awesome leader? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I am no better than anyone else. However, leadership is a craft just as is firefighting. So why don’t our officers find ways to better themselves as leaders? Good question, right?

The easiest way for me to understand this personally is by asking this question. How do you feel about a firefighter being voted on (volunteer) or hired (career) and not going through training to do the job? Would you like that person coming to put your house fire out, do CPR on your spouse, or drive a 50,000-pound fire truck? Not even close. We expect these firefighters to get initial education and experience and then to constantly build on top of that education and experience.

So why doesn’t it happen? I think first and foremost it is because these leaders do not really care about their craft of being a leader. They love the title and power and that is it. Secondly, I think it is because they are scared that others may find out what they do and do not know. They would rather you think they know everything and not risk you finding out the truth.

This is such a missed opportunity with all the training we have at our fingertips!

Admit Mistakes

A mistake. A firefighter’s worst nightmare. It is even worse as a leader. No one wants to admit that they have made a mistake. It hurts, shows you are not perfect, and that you have weaknesses that could be taken advantage of later on. We constantly do things like place blame on others, hide away from discussions where these talks are being discussed and run away from them.

I have seen many leaders regularly do the blame game and such. On face value, there does not seem to be any major impact concerning their actions like this. These actions though cause a lot of damage over time. Members or staff begin to resent you. It creates general unhappiness and dissent. This is a disease that is not easily treated. It spreads constantly and can even impact a member’s family or other departments.

Being the fact that I have an 11-year-old (12 years old by the time you read this! Happy Birthday Reagan!) daughter, a two-year-old son, and a one-year-old daughter, you can imagine I have had watched movies like Moana (Disney) many times. If you have not seen it, Moana is a tribal princess and goes on a quest to save her village. The reason she does this is that there is a disease spreading among the islands killing the fish and other items they eat. At one point of the movie, the grandmother of Moana (who I think is my favorite character in the movie and also reminds me of my Mom, Dianna) shows Moana where the disease is making its way on shore. There is black slowly creeping onto the island. Yet it spreads quickly decimating their village. This is how placing blame on others impacts us.


There are many failures that we make within the fire service. These are just a few that I feel are slowly yet horrifically creeping into our culture and we do not do anything about it. In the following articles, we are going to spend some time looking at how we can fix some of these issues if you are willing to do the work!

Until next time, be safe!

David Hesselmeyer, M.P.A., has been in emergency services for 16 years. Currently he is a firefighter, rescue technician, paramedic, and North Carolina Executive Emergency Manager. Hesselmeyer is the owner and primary consultant with On Target Preparedness (OTP) which contracts with emergency services agencies and non profits to assist in risk assessments, plan writing, plan revision, exercise development, etc. He currently volunteers with Buies Creek Fire Rescue and works part time with Harnett County EMS. He can be contacted at dhesselmeyer@ontargetprep.com or visit his website at www.ontargetprep.com.

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