Leadership: The Fundamentals

(Writers Note: This is hopefully the first of 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.)

Through my travels over the past couple years I have been lucky to have been able to visit multiple fire departments and learn more about how they operate, their successes, and unfortunately some failures or weaknesses — we all have them! 


There has been one commonality for many of these departments. Leadership is not where most want it to be. In looking further, we have to admit that some of this is due to personality conflicts, members thinking that we know better and other such issues. These are common to agencies across the board — just do a search of movies that display that behavior in all types of agencies. However, there seems to be issues with the leadership of our departments.

So where do we begin to look into this?

First, we must define what leadership is? Merriam Webster defines leadership in three ways:

  1. “the office or position of a leader,
  2. capacity to lead,
  3. the act or instance of leading.”

I am not sure if you are like me, but I was always taught that you do not define a word by using that word in the definition. Maybe that has changed since it’s been many years since I was in elementary school. These definitions are not really helpful.

In researching and preparing for this article it was evident that there are a lot of issues defining leadership. Most places ended up with the thought that leadership is hard to define but that we know it if we see it. But we need a starting place for leadership.

So, let’s try again. Kevin Kruse defines leadership as “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2013/04/09/what-is-leadership/#5614e6285b90)

This makes much more sense to me. This definition focuses on influence, joint effort and work towards a common goal. Much more what we think of leadership. 

What Leadership is Not!

The first error I see in the fire service when it comes to leadership is a misunderstanding of what leadership is or is not.

Position or Title

Leadership is not a position or title. Just because you are a lieutenant or deputy fire chief does not mean you are a leader. Even though we try very hard to create standards for these positions it is impossible to ensure that these standards lead to a leader in the position. Using our definition above from Mr. Kruse, does every person with a title influence you? No, I do not think so. Does every captain work to maximize the work of all? I have seen the opposite many times. Does every chief set common goals and objectives for the department? Absolutely not. Since these people with titles do not always provide us with proper influence and motivation then we cannot consider leadership to be a title. Do you feel that every officer in their position is a leader?


This is similar to our previous conversation. Just because someone is senior does not mean they are a leader. Have you seen senior people get titles or positions because they are the most senior person? I know I have. Have you seen senior men and women on the job that are exact opposite of what you consider leadership? Without a doubt, some senior staff do not have the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities and want to be a leader. This does not mean they are there for erroneous or malicious reasons but it doesn’t mean that they are a leader just because of time served.


Leadership is also not management. Managers deal with managing things. Leaders influence and lead people. Management and leadership are not the same thing. I do not consider myself a manager over my staff. I hope and pray that I am a leader. Let me ask you this, do you want to be managed or lead? I would hypothesize you want to be lead. Not many want to be managed. 

What Leadership Is!

So how do we see what good leadership is? I suggest we think about people who we would do anything with or for. For me, I start thinking of the following.

Focus on People

Leadership is focused on people. People are a vital aspect to any operation. Leaders are focused on how they can help the people, personally and business wise. Leaders want to build those around them up. I think this includes building their knowledge, skills and abilities. They want others around them to be better than themselves. They do this through sharing information, allowing others to perform work to get experience and not being focused on the spotlight. The focal point is more about the team to the leader instead of themselves.


A leader is focused on the goals. They always work towards getting the team to work on the goal and objective at hand. They wish to get the job accomplished in the most efficient and successful way possible. They understand that goals lead to achieving the mission of the agency and how important that is for everyone involved. As I always say in my company, “We succeed together, or we can fail together. We all choose which pathway to go in making this decision.” As part of this, the leader also wants everyone to know the goals instead of keeping them secret. They want everyone to understand their personal role in the accomplishment of the goal.


A leader does not want to require authority or power from someone else. Leaders are able to influence others due to various attributes they have. Leaders do not like to demand the authority over others but rather would like to be given that authority from the person willingly and only because they choose to do so. Really, they do not want the authority in most cases but are willing due to their caring nature. They want what is best for all parties involved especially those around them. They lead because they care.


As we end this article and prepare for the next in the series, I ask you to consider the points we have made above concerning what leadership is and is not. Think about those in “leadership” around you. Do they fit into the category of what leadership is or is not? As we go forward with additional articles we will look at why “leaders” may fall into what leadership/leaders are and what they are not.

Until next time, stay 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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