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From the Floor: Enough, already about leadership

Are you tired of firefighter leadership discussions, blogs, social-media posts and conference sessions? Tired of being told you need to manage better, lead better, lead more and build your teams more effectively? How about all of those top-five lists? The seven best tactics?

February 22, 2017 
By Jay Shaw

Top 10 things to do? And, finally, three secrets to better leadership? I’m confused about leadership but there are a few things I have figured out that I believe are paramount. Leadership can’t solely be obtained from reading books; it’s never as simple as we may think it is, and there is no difference between fire-service leadership and whatever you define as personal or business leadership. It’s complicated, and we will step in, trample on it and do it wrong from time to time, as I have learned from personal experience.

I’m not a leadership expert, and I would guess that there are few in the fire service, because we don’t really have a strong conceptual knowledge of the subject. The problem is that leadership is such a vast topic it gets tied to too many sub-topics. If she was a better leader the team would perform better at RIT drills – nope, that’s a training function. If he had the guts to lead us into the building we would have put the fire out – no sir, that’s a confidence and skill issue. If our officer was a better leader we’d have people wearing the proper uniform – wrong again, that’s most likely a discipline and compliance issue.

If you want to learn about leadership, don’t read about fire-service leadership until after you have read or educated yourself from a few different viewpoints. According to Ivy League research, Fortune 500 companies and those who are actually experts, the concept is a simple: we lead people, and we manage things. This is a simplistic lens through which to start your journey; I won’t tell you how to do it because I’m on the journey myself and am currently looking for the answer.

The fire service really should focus on two concepts that are most often confused with leadership: character and authority. A person’s character is most commonly confused with leadership because, in the absence of a working definition, we often describe leadership by the void it creates when it is not there. It is blatantly obvious when someone is not leading, and we know this because of a lack of any one of many character traits. We would need far fewer leadership articles if we focused on developing strong character traits in our firefighters and defining how certain actions demonstrate the character traits we want to build in individuals – for example, honesty is doing ABC, integrity is defined by when and how you do XYZ. Stop trying to point out leadership traits and focus on character.


Authority is a tricky concept. You have a job, and work for a supervisor, officer, or chief. This job is a privilege not a right, and inside of your job you have entitlements such as pay, benefits, holidays and pensions that you receive for performing your assigned duties. Your authority to direct work, and responsibility to adhere to the work directed is written at the highest level of your government’s structure. This goes past the chief, as he or she has a boss too. It is OK to tell someone what to do and how to do it if given the authority. We need to give back the proper authority to the right individuals at the proper levels within the organization to lead our people and manage the assigned tasks. We have stripped away our officers’ authority and ability to discipline and make corrective action; even worse, we choose not to use this authority when we have it, because we don’t want to be that guy who becomes a jerk for doing the job. You have to have and exhibit strong character to be able to properly use and assert your authority. As Spiderman’s uncle says, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

So, can we please stop writing and blogging about leading from within or inspiring others to reach their potential, because emotional self-connection and personal growth, while important, are not what leadership truly is. Clearly outline the character traits you want developed in your firefighters and how they can be demonstrated as action in your service, and give those with great character the authority and support to do the job properly by managing the day-to-day tasks and work. If any of this is confusing or you feel it is off the mark, that’s good! This makes you normal and a student of one of the most confusing topics the fire service has ever tried to explore.

Jay Shaw is a firefighter and primary-care paramedic with the City of Winnipeg, and an independent education and training consultant focusing on leadership, management, emergency preparedness and communication skills. @firecollege

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