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Leadership Forum: Away from the lights

April 25, 2023 
By Matt Pegg

In my role as fire chief, I am often involved in formal, official, and high-profile events, ceremonies, and functions. Press conferences, public events, and speaking engagements are increasingly common, both for me and members of my command team. Today, and perhaps increasingly in the post COVID-19 pandemic era, fire service leaders are familiar faces in our communities, both in the media and on social media.

You know from many of my previous articles, that I truly believe there are few roles more important for fire service leaders than to be the face and voice of calm during difficult times and emergencies.  

However, the more experience I gain as a leader, the more I continue to learn that the most important work ever done by leaders almost always happens away from the lights.   

The most impactful leadership moments often don’t happen at press conferences, formal ceremonies, nor through vibrant and scripted public events. Rather, the biggest leadership impacts happen in the dark, behind the scenes, in the shadows, and in the places most often unseen.    

The one-on-one discussions that happen out of the public eye; the warm and appreciative smile on a nasty, cold night; or going to see someone personally when you need to either apologize or say thank you are all examples of where real leadership impacts are made.  

Recently, I was asked when it is important for the leader to show up personally. That question caused me to think about an important leadership truth: the most important time for a leader to “show up” is when they really don’t want to.  

I rather reluctantly admit that with every passing birthday, it seems to be harder and harder to get up in the middle of the night to personally attend fatal, critical injury and other emergency incident scenes, only to then carry on with a full day of meetings, events, and evening appointments afterwards.  But, as the fire chief, it matters that I do, and I won’t have it any other way so long as I serve in this role.

As a young deputy fire chief, then Ajax Fire Chief Randy Wilson taught me more than I have ever properly thanked him for. One of the leadership truths that Chief Wilson taught me is that the more difficult or uncomfortable something is for a leader to do, the more important it is that we do it.  

Recently, albeit more than 20 years since I worked directly with Chief Wilson, it was his phone call that let me know that I needed to get up and go visit with my friend, Phil Brownlee.   

To be honest, I didn’t want to go to the hospice to see Phil, as I really didn’t want to accept what that inevitably meant. But I went anyhow, and was able to share some laughs, learn even more about the life and career of this Canadian golf legend, and most importantly to say goodbye to someone who was both very important to me and whom I proudly called my friend. Phil passed only a few shorts days later.    

There was nothing visible or public about Randy’s phone call to me, nor did anyone know that he called me. I know that it wasn’t easy for him to make that call, and to share the news he needed to share with me that day. Yet, he called me anyhow and his leadership made a difference in the lives of both Phil and I that day. I will forever be grateful that Chief Wilson cared enough to make that uncomfortable call to me that day.

In my own experience, I know that some of the most difficult places I have ever been, and some of the most difficult things I have ever done, didn’t happen on stage, or under the lights of public visibility. Rather, the most important things tend to happen away from the lights, in the dark and out of the public eye, and they happen in the places and times where they go largely unseen.  

The key ingredient in the recipe for authenticity as a leader is vulnerability. Vulnerability lives in the places where we simply don’t want to be – in the tough conversations, the inconvenient situations, and those places where the knot in our stomach becomes the most pronounced.

Thank you, Chief Wilson, for reminding me that, as leaders, the more difficult something is to do, the more important it is that we do it. 

Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Matthew at and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS. 

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