Firelines: Good leaders are humble people

November 09, 2017
Written by Dave Balding
I was recently asked by some of my firefighters why I chose to ride in the rear seat of our rescue truck during a motor vehicle incident (MVI) response in early September rather than taking my usual command vehicle. Sure, I could have jumped in the front seat, but I left that role open to an up-and-coming member. Once on-scene, the incident was straightforward and command clearly had the situation under control, so why wouldn’t I make myself available on the tools?
Operationally, it makes sense for everyone to be competent at the task level, but this decision meant more than that. It sends a message to my firefighters that I too am willing to do more than command or supervise. The 40-minute trip back to the fire hall also provided me with some meaningful time with the other members.

I believe humility is an essential quality for leaders to possess. It lives at the opposite end of the spectrum to arrogance – that terrible quality that is so detrimental to a team setting. A lack of humility stifles subordinates’ creativity, ambition, and eventually their willingness to participate. Somewhere on that sliding scale is the confident leader who is assertive, yet not aggressive or arrogant – that balance is so important. As fire service leaders, we are no longer just one of the guys, but we cannot fall into the habit of being detached from our subordinates or unapproachable.  

Humility is not a single quality, rather a blend of several components. In part, it consists of a willingness to listen to others. Firefighters bring a diversity of talent to the department, many of them with specialized knowledge that I don’t posses. When I decide to make changes within the department, I make an effort to ask members for their input. The ability to accept critique and make changes is a strength that benefits every aspect of the organization. Make no mistake, there are many times when a decision goes unchanged for operational, safety or other reasons, but I try not to dismiss input for the simple fact that I’m the fire chief. On occasion I’ll ask a firefighter for their opinion or advice on an issue. As an example, rope rescue is admittedly not my best suit. However, I have NFPA 1006 qualified members that I frequently consult about technical rescue logistics. Leaders are learners; I learn from my firefighters and I’m not afraid to show it. I’ve also made my share of mistakes, and when I’m wrong, I will admit it to my members. There is, in my mind, no alternative. I believe that allowing our members to make mistakes and accept accountability encourages learning and growth as firefighters, and leaders in their own right.

Fire-service leaders, especially chief officers, tend to garner attention from the public and the media around events in the fire department – both good and bad. The humble leader will not deflect responsibility for fear of bad publicity; instead, they will take more than their share of the blame. Good news, or praise, should be diverted to others – let’s make them look good. Firefighters are an intuitive bunch, they will quickly notice which leaders want the department and its members to succeed, and which ones are in it for self-promotion.

I tell my firefighters that no one is above duties like washing fire apparatus; that means I occasionally wash fire trucks alongside our members. I expect my firefighters to take initiative, pitch in, and be self-starters; I believe their chief should do the same – lead by example, pitch in and help however he can. Fortunately, we are a small fire department, which allows me to occasionally participate directly with my members. These small actions help to dispel any perceived elitism – the polar opposite of humility, which suppresses morale and lowers levels of respect for department leadership. Naturally, there must be balance. My job is primarily administrative, so I mustn’t get so immersed in hands-on tasks that I lose sight of my role as a leader. However, I fervently believe that connections with the most important element of our departments – our firefighters – must be maintained.

Ironically, it takes courage to be humble, to be open to others’ ideas, admit mistakes, and divert attention to the department members we lead. Can we lead with humility, while still holding our members accountable for their performance in all aspects? I believe so. The key is finding the right place on the humility – arrogance continuum. That balanced place is dynamic; it moves one way or the other depending on personal leadership styles, our subordinates and the situation. In time, a dedicated leader will find that balance, as they work with each of their department members. Our firefighters want, need and deserve humble, yet firm leadership.


Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB

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