Leadership Forum: Aim for influence over rank in your department

Set a positive example for other department members and you will find that your influence exceeds your rank.
July 17, 2017
Written by Matt Pegg
I am firm believer that leadership is a combination of skills, competencies and abilities that can be learned, shared, developed and honed. Over the course of my career, I have witnessed many outstanding examples of exceptional leadership. I am blessed to have a few amazing mentors who are forever helping me become a better leader.
I have also witnessed numerous examples of very poor, damaging and ineffective leadership. Fortunately, we can always learn from both.

There are times when I have demonstrated effective and inspiring leadership, but there have also been times when I failed to lead effectively. This is the nature of leadership – it is not a static thing nor is it something that we magically possess the moment that we get promoted.

Leadership happens from moment to moment, person to person and issue to issue. On any given day, each of us is given opportunities to provide effective leadership, sometimes only seconds or minutes apart. It is up to each person to decide whether or not to take the opportunity to lead.

Leadership is not easy. In fact, it is downright hard at times. When the pressure mounts, emotions get involved and our personal biases and opinions cloud our ability to see the bigger picture; it is all too easy to make bad leadership decisions. In times when we are fatigued and edgy, or when we are dealing with difficult issues in our personal and professional lives, it is easy to miss an opportunity to lead.

Every officer in the fire service is expected to be a leader, so what is the goal of leadership? From my perspective, the goal of leadership is to have your influence as a leader exceed the authority of your rank.

I believe that the most effective leaders achieve results by way of influence and not on the basis of positional power or rank. Leaders exist at every rank and level within the fire service. Effective leaders bring a sense of calm to any room, any situation or any environment. They have the ability to see the bigger picture. They offer perspectives and advice that move discussions forward, and settle disputes through skilled mediation. Effective leaders genuinely care for others and guide team members as they develop within the fire service by rallying people around them.  

Leaders do not complete tasks, nor do they achieve results by
relying upon a superior rank. A true leader will never default to “because I have more stripes than you” as the rationale for a decision. They are not dictators. They do not expect their teams to do things that they themselves would not do. They are not bullies. They are not rigid, nor closed to ideas and opinions that differ from their own.

All leaders will encounter situations in which they must make unpopular decisions or take actions that are not supported by others. Leaders must learn to make tough decisions with limited and conflicting information. In the fire services, leaders are tasked with making decisions that affect the health and safety of other first responders and community members; this responsibility must be taken seriously.

In my experience, one of the most difficult things about being a leader in the fire service, especially at the company officer or operational chief officer level, is to move between being a command officer at the scene of an emergency and a leader back in the fire station. The command-and-control environment of an emergency scene, which often requires leaders to make quick decisions and make direct orders, is drastically different than life in the fire station. The best fire-service leaders are able to move between incident commander and leader in the fire hall efficiently and effectively.

The hard reality is that, regardless of your position, you are only a leader when people willingly follow you. Simply holding a rank or position does not make a qualified leader – the ability to establish trust and achieve results is what separates leadership from rank.

A very wise mentor of mine once asked me: “If you removed all of your rank and returned to a position as a firefighter, would you still be respected?” This is a powerful question that every leader should consider introspectively.

The more bars or stripes that officers wear on their shoulders and sleeves should indicate of their ability to solve problems and influence colleagues. The very best fire chiefs with whom I work with and from whom I learn are those who don’t require a rank to achieve results.

The fire service needs exceptional leaders. Are you ready?


Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Pegg at
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