Successful Leadership

Leadership can be a challenge in any industry, but it can be especially so in the emergency services world. Stress levels run high, budget challenges abound, and employee morale can dip in a sometimes thankless job. With a variety of potential pitfalls, how can a leader in the first responder community be a success? Here a few tips that can help you not just be a boss, but a true leader of your people.


A good leader makes people feel included as part of a team. This is especially true in the first responder world where employees must have a tremendous amount of trust in each other to successfully navigate emergency situations.

Lead From the Front

Leading from the front might sound like a cliché, but it is imperative in the emergency services world. To be an effective leader, get in the “trenches” with your people. Nothing inspires confidence more than seeing the boss doing the job. That does not mean that you always have to jump into the physical work, but you can’t be seen as a leader who never gets their hands dirty. A good rule of thumb is: Don’t ask someone to do a task or job that you have not done or will not do yourself.

It is very hard for employees to stay connected to leadership if the only contact with leadership is through an e-mail or memo. Employees can quickly feel that leaders do not care or are out of touch with the realities of the job. Leaders must be visible. They must be seen doing the job or at least understanding what the job entails. Leaders should inspire from the front, not demand from the back.

Micromanagement vs. Delegation

Micromanagement is a trap that many leaders, especially new or inexperienced leaders, fall into. Leaders can quickly buy into the adage, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Supervisors can become so mired in the minutiae that they lose sight of big picture issues. Micromanagers can find themselves behind deadlines or under tremendous amounts of self-induced stress trying to over manage every aspect of the job.

The art of delegation is a skill that all leaders must possess to ensure that the department runs smoothly and efficiently. Delegation shows your people that you trust them. It also helps groom future leadership by letting your people tackle problems and issues without a tremendous amount of interference. A good leader must delegate appropriately, though. There is such a thing as too much delegation. A leader must at least maintain a general knowledge of the details and skills of the job to be seen as competent. Over delegation can lead to a lack of understanding of basic job functions, especially as job functions change over time.

Employee Discipline Issues

One of the true tests of any leader is how they handle employee disciplinary issues. You must hold your people accountable, but you must also take circumstances into account. Tardiness and “no show” issues may be symptomatic of an underlying issue at home, issues with transportation, or just life circumstances interfering with job performance. Leaders must find a balance between compassion and understanding on one side, and holding employees accountable on the other side.

A leader can oftentimes find themselves filling the role of counselor whenever employee discipline issues arise. Due to the nature of the job, first responders can face a tremendous amount of stress. This stress can lead to anxiety and/or depression issues that are tough for both the employee and the supervisor. Leaders should try to look beyond job performance issues to root out the underlying cause. Then, the employee and leader can work together to find an acceptable solution. Leaders must bear in mind that sometimes the most acceptable solution is for the employee to part ways with the department.

Team Dynamics

A good leader makes people feel included as part of a team. This is especially true in the first responder world where employees must have a tremendous amount of trust in each other to successfully navigate emergency situations. It is the job of the supervisor to mold the group into a cohesive unit.

Leaders should be approachable and ask for honest feedback from team members. You cannot grow as a leader if you are unwilling to listen to and learn from your subordinates. Likewise, leaders should provide feedback- both good and bad- to their employees. It is easy for a supervisor to fall into the routine of only providing negative feedback. Positive feedback provides a boost in morale and also makes employees feel recognized and appreciated.

Strong Goals

Leaders must set strong goals that are both attainable and well-defined. Good leaders know what they want to achieve for the department, and they make sure that all employees are on the same page. The entire department must be on board with the mission for goals to be achieved. Leaders must never be satisfied with the status quo. Always look for ways to improve the department and move it forward.

When setting goals, good leaders seek input from their subordinates. This input provides the supervisor with a variety of opinions, and it provides subordinates with a sense of ownership in the goal or task at hand. While the leader has the ultimate decision-making responsibility in goal-setting, employees feel that their voice has been heard when leaders ask for honest input.

Be Sincere

Leaders must know the job and must know their people, but above all else, leaders must be sincere. One of the quickest ways to lose the confidence of their employees, is for a leader to appear dishonest or insincere. Charisma without sincerity falls flat. Employees can tell when a leader does not care or is only “going through the motions.” Leaders should have a passion for what they do. They should inspire their employees to do their best. 

Leaders should never forget where they came from. Leaders should draw on their experiences, advice from mentors and lessons learned from past mistakes. Talking about your own failures and the lessons you learned along the way can help show your employees that you sincerely care about their success and well-being.

Don’t be afraid to have fun. Emergency response is a stressful occupation. Many first responders use humor as a coping mechanism. Encourage an atmosphere that allows for humor — within reason. Leaders must use restraint and good judgment on the appropriate use of humor in the workplace. 


Being a boss is easy. Being a leader is much more difficult. Strive every day to be the type of leader who inspires, trusts, supports and cares about their employees

Kevin Davis has over 22 years’ experience in the security industry. He earned a B.A. from Harding University and a Juris Doctorate from the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law. He is Assistant Director of Public Safety at Harding University. Davis is an NRA Law Enforcement Handgun, Shotgun, and Patrol Rifle Instructor as well as a FEMA Active Shooter Response Instructor. He is also a CPR, medical response and defensive tactics instructor.

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.