Leadership: Why Does It Matter?

(Writers Note: This is the final article 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.)


As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. I hope that you have been enjoying this series on leadership. I thought it would be best to end this series talking about why leadership matters. Being a 23-year student of our craft, I have had my share of learning under different leaders and watching how each of these leaders impacted those under their care.

Why It Matters? Because it Affects EVERYTHING!

In today’s world of firefighting, one would quickly think or assume that our most valuable and expensive asset would be our engines, ladders and rescue vehicles. Albeit those are very valuable pieces running from $200,000 to well over $1,000,000 it is not our most valuable asset. Of course, we are talking about our people. Our staff and members are the most valuable asset. They can make or break our organization, demonstrate our efficiency or lack thereof, and cost us a lot of money.

How does an organization operate under the premise of leaders realizing their biggest asset? In general, these organizations are very efficient, accomplish many objectives, and are a model agency. Why? These organizations understand the staff’s needs (refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). They realize that not every member has the same needs. The organization adjusts to each individual and the whole. These organizations also build up their members by allowing them to build their own career path. Not every member wants to become an officer. Some are happy riding backwards or chauffeuring the rig. Some want to work towards being a chief officer over time. The organization aids in making that happen by supporting training, education and many other items. In short, the members feel empowered overall to be successful individually, which leads to the overall organization succeeding in a much better manner.

What happens to an organization which eyes the members as a number or, as I extremely loathe hearing, “you can be replaced so if you don’t like it then leave.” I call it the rotten potato syndrome. If you like to cook like I do, you often have a bag of potatoes in the pantry. What happens to that bag if there is one rotten potato? The rest of the potatoes become rotten a lot faster and very quickly. There has been plenty of examples where poor leadership (e.g., micromanagement) has aided in rotting the members. The members become uncaring, lack enthusiasm and begin giving way under their potential. This has a domino effect throughout the department. You also see the members leaving for other departments for this purpose.

Even though these poor leaders feel that a member can be replaced there is a misnomer about this. First, you are not only losing a member, but you are losing all of their experience, education and institutional knowledge. Those things are mostly not replaceable. Secondly, replacing a member is not cheap. Think about the open position even if it were volunteer. How much money is lost paying for overtime to cover that spot? How much loss of time and staffing for that volley member that quit? It is a lot. On the career side, we also must look at the cost to advertise, go through the hiring process, spend additional money on items such as background checks and driving records, and the like. When you compare the costs honestly, losing a member is very costly.

Good leadership also does something spectacular that most of us do not consider. When we have efficient leaders, other departments seem to take note and step up their game as well. Even though sometimes we do not like to admit it, we pay attention to what other departments are doing. By us working to be efficient leaders, others want to imitate our success. This may not be a huge deal to you, but when you need mutual aid, it is going to come from these same departments that were paying attention to you and trying to implement things they like from you. I personally like the idea of having other great departments around when I need assistance. Do you have other departments and leaders from those departments that inspire you to be your best? I know I do.

One example for me is Chief Gary Ludwig, Chief of the Champaign Fire Department. It is an honor to call Chief Ludwig a friend and it came out of out my respect to how he constantly works to better any department that he leads. I had followed his work for a while including reading his articles and listening to presentations. This led to our friendship. It constantly makes me want to do better. I can look at what he does and determine what will work for me. Then I can look at implementing anything, which has mainly been personal improvement for me at my firehouse.

A final point here to consider is that the public sees us. When we are good leaders, the public sees how we treat our members, how we support them and many other observations to the like. In many cases, this leads to even more support from our citizens. They appreciate seeing these things. This is one of two things that I think works in our favor when it is a positive assessment of us when it is time to ask for money and/or tax increases (note: The other one is to regularly provide information to your citizens such as an open house to show off the new ladder truck or an annual review of all data such as run numbers, man hours used, response times, etc.). It is amazing how doing simple things like leading well can sometimes tip that scale of the public’s opinion when they feel the leaders and their members always work together in a positive manner for a positive objective.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, these points mentioned above will provide some understanding of why it is important for us to build ourselves constantly as good leaders. Remember you do not have to be an officer to be a leader. Senior members, retired members, and others can be leaders in your department too. Good luck as you improve your leadership today and for many days to come.

It is my hope that this series of articles on leadership has been valuable to you. It was an honor to share these thoughts with you over the series.

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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