The 7 Qualities Fire Service Leaders Must Possess — Courtesy

(This is part five 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. 


You cannot be an effective team leader without being able to effectively communicate in every realm. Part five will focus on courtesy.

The definition from Webster’s Dictionary of courtesy:

  1. A behavior marked by polished manners or respect for others
  2. A courteous and respectful act or expression.

For fire service leaders a realistic appraisal of your team’s abilities enables you as a leader to strike a healthy ability to communicate. For today’s fire service it is import to understand that every form of communications is important and is required for the ability to communicate with the diversity of the generations in today’s fire service. Understanding that no matter what generation, group or age you are communicating with, courtesy is a critical element that has lasting influence.

I know of no highly successful leader, especially in the fire service, who fails to demonstrate courtesy. I know of many fire service officers and leaders who earned their respect in their position of authority and autonomy because they understood that courtesy is the lubricant that allows the human interaction of interpersonal dynamics to work harmoniously. Others who fail to provide courteous behavior usually do not gain respect or get the level of response they could if they would just apply courtesy practices.

John C. Maxwell states, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” He is absolutely correct in this statement. The temperament of a leader is an important ingredient that goes a long way in determining his or her success. In short, behaviors and attitudes are critical factors and do matter.

All too often, we hear the stories of fire service bullying and other behaviors that contribute to poor morale and working conditions. As a leader it is important to be aware of your surroundings and your workplace culture. Now is a good time to be reminded of simple courtesies that make a difference. I have provided a list of the common courtesies I have learned from great leaders and mentors that every fire officer should remember. This list is not exhaustive but a sound foundation to begin working from. The list is in no specific order.

Return Your Phone Calls

Nothing frustrates me more than not to get communication from someone I am trying to communicate with. As a leader when people are reaching out to you it is important to them that they communicate with you. How many times has this happened to you? You leave a voicemail and you go days or weeks without a response often requiring multiple attempts and follow up. How did it make you feel? Nothing indicates you or your situation are not important any louder than the silence of being ignored. A courteous leader will return calls promptly. In an effort to meet this objective I have my office phone always forwarded to my cell phone so I can answer the call immediately if I happen to be out of the office. Nothing indicates your desire to communicate more than answering the phone. If I cannot take the call, I try to send a quick text, if possible, to indicate I am busy and will contact them as soon as possible. I try to set the rule of no more than one hour to return a phone call and always apologize for not being able to take their call initially.

Answer Your Emails Timely

Nothing frustrates me more than not to get communication from someone I am trying to communicate with. As a leader, when people are reaching out to you it is important to them that they communicate with you. How many times has this happened to you? You send an email or emails and you go days or weeks without a response. This is extremely frustrating when this is supposed to be a quick and resourceful way of communicating. A courteous leader will return emails promptly. With technology at the level it is today we receive emails on multiple devices which will allow the ability for a quick response. Nothing screams being ignored more than going days without a response of some kind on an email. If I cannot respond in detail to the email immediately, I try to send a quick return email to say I have received it and will get with them as soon as I can or if out of pocket an automatic response to indicate such. I try to set the rule of no more than four hours to return an email and always apologize for being delayed if I go over that.

How to Say ‘Thank You,’ ‘Please’ and ‘You’re welcome’

It should go without saying but these polite yet simple forms of communication are essential words in the vocabulary of every leader. However, all too often I hear communications of leaders exclude these simple phrases. It is important as a leader that you use these often and use them with sincerity. These phrases are still relevant and meaningful. Your responses from others will indicate that they appreciate your courtesy. The feeling of being appreciated is critical to improving the performance and morale of those you lead.

The Timing of Positive and Encouraging Words

One of the most powerful and courteous things you can do as a leader is to speak words of encouragement to those around you. Encouragement improves attitude. Attitude is critical in people being positive and feeling good about themselves. I personally have never felt worse after someone encouraged me. Encouragement by definition makes us feel better, puts a bounce in our step, a smile on our face and a desire to be successful, thus improving your attitude. When our attitude is better, we are healthier, happier and more productive. The timing of a kind word to a colleague can be just the thing he or she needs to make it through the day or through a difficult time. Be aware of the needs of those around you and don’t be afraid to speak a kind and encouraging word.

The Art of Active Listening

On so many levels we are losing the art of active listening and being present in the moment. We are losing this component in the art of conversation. All too often we are distracted and listening to answer rather than listening to understand. The better connected we are through technology the more distant we’ve become relationally. For proof, try having a 30-minute lunch with a group of friends or colleagues and watch how many times each person is checking their mobile device, if not staying on that device the entire lunch. I have learned from mentors that the art of active listening is critical in being a true respected leader. I have designed my office where I have to turn my back to the computer and phone to have a face to face conversation. I have set up a meeting space (a round table and four chairs) in my office that I utilize frequently to have conversations. This area allows for open body language and the reduction of positional power from behind the desk. Other leaders I know have a coffee table and sitting chairs in their office for utilization in the art of active listening. Remember to put away the phone or remove any other distractions, give others your undivided attention and listen to understand and not to answer.

The Timing of your Silence

In the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes states, “there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” Often times we want to respond — listening to answer — without taking time to understand what it is being communicated as we talked about above. As a leader, there will be times when you need to hold your comments and not say a word. We often respond out of emotion rather than understanding. Emotional responses will routinely not be thought out and will usually exacerbate the situation. As a leader you can be just as courteous by what you don’t say as you can by what you do say. As a leader you have to learn the appropriateness of the moment.

Just Let Some Things Go

Human nature is hard and we all work off emotions at times. As a leader, extending courtesies can be challenging. Great leaders in the fire service have taught me that one of the wisest things you can do as a leader is to learn how to let things go. Don’t be so hell bent on winning the battle that you lose the war. A good leader will focus on the end outcome. Consider the issue and measure your response. Learn how to forgive and move on. You’ll be happier in the long run.

The Value of People’s Time

In our fast pace world today, time seems to be of the essence. As a fire service leader you are probably very busy with the tasks and responses of the day and all of the other components of life. A courteous leader is considerate of other people’s time and knows how to manage their own. It is critical that when you set a meeting time you are on time and that you are prepared for the meeting and not wasting time on trivial things. When people schedule appointments with you, be prepared to meet with them and schedule enough time for that meeting. Showing courtesy as a leader means that you value and respect other people’s time and won’t waste it. Giving of your time with impromptu situations also indicates the personnel are important and that you care. We all know that our personnel are your most valued resource, giving of your time to them indicates your commitment to them and that you value them.

Mind Your Own Business

As a leader it is important that you DO NOT get caught up in or participate in the gossip and office politics. We all know that gossip and the rumor mill have been around for a long time and continue to thrive in organizations. A courteous leader will stay out of the gossip and rumor mill as well as silencing these with facts and stopping the conversations. There is a thin line of when it is your business as a leader and when it is not. If it affects the organization, violates policy or is malicious then it is your business as a leader. As leaders if it’s not your business then don’t make it your business, refrain from being part of the problem. If it is your business then use it as a teachable moment to show the proper way to handle it.

Keep Your Word

Courteous leaders are reliable and keep their word. Be slow to make promises and keep the ones you do make. One thing I have learned through the years is that people don’t care how much you may know until they know how much you care. By keeping promises you show people that they are important and you care about them. Reasonable people understand that circumstances change and things come up that you didn’t anticipate. Leaders who keep their word will find ways to keep their word or communicate why they can’t promptly. Failure to keep your word should be rare and require an understandable reason. Often times I have witnessed leaders that made lots of promises that they could not keep or were well out of their scope. Many of these were a quid pro quo concept of I will do this for you if you support me. When these fail you have lost the respect of those people and it is usually obvious to others.

By keeping your word consistently over time you will become well respected. In John C. Maxwell’s book “How Successful People Lead” he describes the five levels of leadership. When you reach level five, “The Pinnacle” or respect level, people follow you because of who you are and what you represent. Keeping your word is one of the most important components of showing courtesy.

Just Be Nice

How many times have you heard a parent, grand parent or leader state to you to just be nice? Something that should take little effort and be a common trend. However, far too often we see individuals in leadership positions not being nice. They speak rudely to people, they engage in taunting and harmful communications towards the individual and the organization often speaking way too authoritative and unprofessional when it is not necessary. Not being nice is an instant killer of respect in interpersonal dynamics.

The late Chief Alan Brunicini always stated, “Be Nice,” when he was speaking about leadership. He believed, as do I, that this is the easiest and most critical one of the ways to show courtesy. A courteous leader is kind, considerate and helpful to others — the basis of being nice. It’s the little things you do as a leader that make a big difference. It begins with common courtesy so remember — Be Nice!

Fire service leaders in world-class organizations demonstrate by example their organization’s commitment to exceptional courtesy by executing these traits above. It was apparent from listening to and watching fire service leaders that apply courtesy into their leadership are responsible for creating, communicating, exemplifying and reinforcing the organization’s and their commitment to courtesy.

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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