The 7 Qualities Fire Service Leaders Must Possess

Being Competent

(This is part two of a seven-part series on leadership.)

During this series we will be examining the seven qualities that are necessary for a leader to be successful in leading the organization and the team. Part two will focus on being competent.


Competent: have suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience, etc. for some purpose; properly qualified. (

In emergency services there is a complex amount of skills. Often times the belief is that you have to be competent at every single skill there is in the business. That is as far from the truth as you can get. Being competent doesn’t mean that a leader knows how to do everything, rather that they know what to do and how to get it done. While many leaders are not often selected for their competence alone, competence is something different from character or leadership competence and should not be confused.

While a leader does not have to possess and be competent at every skill that they may lead, but must be competent in many, demonstrating them periodically. The leader does not have to be competent in every skill but must be competent in the skills of identifying the talent around them who have those skills, engaging them and trusting them as a significant part of the leadership team. In this article we are focusing on leadership competence.

Competent Listener

Good leaders have to be competent listeners. In order to be a competent listener, a person must be able to listen with literal comprehension. Specifically, the competent listener should be able to exhibit the following competencies by demonstrating the abilities discussed in this section.

We can develop and improve our listening competence by enhancing each stage of the listening process as a leader. To improve listening at the receiving stage the leader must be prepared to listen to understand — not listening to answer. Leaders must discern between intentional messages and noise. Often times we get focused in and create dialogue on non-important items or when people are just venting. Concentrate on stimuli most relevant to your listening purpose(s) or goal(s), being mindful of the selection and attention process as much as possible. This means you have to be focused on the conversation and not distracted or pre-occupied.

As a leader it is crucial to have attention to turn-taking signals so you can follow the conversational flow, and avoid interrupting someone while they are speaking in order to maintain your ability to receive stimuli and listen. I bring you to the point of listening to understand and not listening to respond. Most of us listen to respond and not to understand what is truly being communicated.

With the fact that we don’t usually listen to understand it is important to improve listening at the interpreting stage. Failure to identify main points and supporting points can cause you to miss the main meaning of the conversation and send you into oblivion with your communications. Competent leaders with good listening competence can use conversational contextual clues from the person or environment to determine additional meaning about what is being communicated. Additionally, being aware of how a relational, cultural, or situational context can influence conversation meaning.

Competent listeners utilize the differences in voice tones, speech rates and other paralinguistic cues that influence meaning to help determine the true message. It is important to truly listen not only to the words being spoken but also to the totality of the communication, which truly creates the true concept of what is being communicated.

Competent Motivator

Being a good leader in emergency services requires more than being a high performer yourself. You must also be able to motivate others to achieve their greatest potential by empowering them and holding them accountable for their responsibilities.

So where do we start with motivation? Simple — Start with Yourself. If you are not motivated how can you expect others to become motivated around you. You can start the process by doing a self-assessment. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself and answering them honestly as you inter-inspect. What is your level of motivation currently? What actions can you take to raise it? Is there room for improvement in you leadership?

Note, if you’re not engaged with today’s fire service and your organization, it is going to be difficult to get other people engaged, especially those you are leading. If you find that you’re struggling with motivation, you need to identify why and correct it.

Working on the wrong types of projects, not having the necessary resources to do the work, or being bored with the usual routine are all common contributors to low engagement levels. When you can pinpoint the cause for your lack of motivation, you will be better able to find the appropriate solutions.

It’s hard to get others motivated about something that does not instill a “greater than self” sense of purpose or inspire them to do better or more. While not everything in emergency services will be exciting, as a leader, you have to find ways to get people excited about the mundane routine, non-exciting responses and tasks that have to be performed and get them to understand the value it brings to the success of the organization. It is critical that you share your vision with your team and explain in detail why a particular task or project is important. Refer to organizational mission, vision and values that connect the work to them to help people keep the big picture in mind.

Competent Team Builder

Team building consists of many separate, but closely related skills in one core competency. These include the leader’s ability to increase mutual trust between the leader and the individuals as well as the leader and the entire organization. The leader must encourage and engage cooperation, coordination, and identification with the mission, vision and values of the organization. In emergency services everything we do is wrapped around the team concept. It is paramount that the interpersonal dynamics and group dynamics of the team are good.

If you refer back to the listening section we will see that it is critical to encourage information sharing/communications among individuals. This information must be on a multi-dimensional level between all members of the team. Knowledge is power but only if it is shared. By sharing, it opens up opportunities to get personnel further engaged by including others in processes and decisions.

Competent leaders are able to perform all of the above tasks, helping create teams that work well together and meet both short-term and strategic goals of the organization they serve.

Douglas Cline is Chief of the Training and Professional Development Division with Horry County Fire Rescue. He is the Executive Editor for The Fire Officer and Executive Director for the Command Institute in Washington D.C. A 36 year fire and emergency services veteran as well as a well-known international speaker, Cline is a highly published author of articles, blogs and textbooks for both fire and EMS. As a chief officer, Cline is a distinguished authority of officer development and has traveled internationally delivering distinguished programs on leadership and officer development. He also has a diverse line of training videos on leadership, rapid intervention team training, vehicle fires, hose line management, and emergency vehicle operations and fire ground safety and survival.

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