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Volunteer Vision: Laid back leadership instills confidence

Fire-service conferences and educational sessions often deal with the importance of leadership. Good leadership is necessary – at an emergency scene, around the fire hall and even at home. But leadership is not always seen, or in the forefront, as often the best leadership happens behind the scenes.

August 24, 2017 
By Tom DeSorcy

As a fire chief, it’s difficult, at times, to avoid being the leader. When I gather with a group of people outside of the fire department – at a community event, for example – it is often assumed I should be in charge because of who I am and what I do for a living. The truth is, I have no inherent need to be in charge; I don’t care who the leader is, just so long as we have one.  

To be effective in anything we do, someone does need to lead. Whether the position is formally identified or not, someone should be in charge and, depending on the tasks at hand, the well led will often take it upon themselves and step up to be leaders themselves.

I prefer a low-key style of leadership. What is your leadership style?  Is it important to you that everyone around knows you’re in charge, and to always be in the forefront of the organization? Or do you lead in a more subtle fashion, outlining expectations and giving your people the freedom to perform to their capabilities?

Every kind of leadership has a place on the team – hands on or hands off – but it is important to understand how your leadership style fits into the department.  What kind of reaction do you expect from the people under your command, and the public they serve?


Similar to referees in minor- and major-league sports, fire chiefs are responsible for making sure things run smoothly and everyone plays by the rules. Do you consider a referee a leader? I do. Referees are largely responsible for the pace and fairness of play. Rarely do sports reporters comment on how well a game is officiated; headlines seldom praise the individuals wearing the striped shirts, rather the players make the front pages. Occasionally, officials appear in the headlines, usually being blamed for ruining a team’s chances of victory, especially when the home team loses. Referees rarely get attention from the media for calling a great game. Similarly, as fire-chiefs, no attention often means we are managing, leading, and communicating well.

Often, we see newspaper stories praising firefighters for a quick response that saved lives or prevented extensive damage; these types of stories, about firefighter bravery or heroics, are well received by readers and viewers. Rarely do reporters write about the behind-the-scenes training and preparation required to make that save or protect exposures. But true leaders know their impact, even if the public does not.

On the ice or the field, the players get the most attention. While referees ensure fairness, coaches motivate and instruct, and report to club presidents, general managers and owners – a very familiar structure to us in the fire service; everyone knows their roles and where they fit in to achieve overall success in the organization.

I’d like to think I’m like that referee who keeps a quiet lid on things, allows the players to do what they do best, gives the coaches – in our case, the captains and training officers – the authority and confidence to run their drills, and ensures council and taxpayers (upper management, if you will) are informed and educated about the team’s objectives, successes and needs.

No matter which style you embrace, leadership of a successful team can often go unnoticed – as opposed to lack of leadership of an unsuccessful team, which usually results in labour-relations issues, negative headlines, and management changes.

I prefer when firefighters get the credit, because that’s where it belongs. As chiefs, we are there to provide support to allow firefighters to perform at their best, and to lead themselves as the situation dictates.

Building a successful team takes time, but when that structure is put in place it can be magic. When you allow firefighters to build the confidence to take charge and lead themselves, it not only gives them a serious confidence boost but it is also inspiring, to say the least; not only have you given your crews the tools to succeed in an environment that allows them to emerge as leaders themselves, but you have also allowed them to have a hand in developing their peers along the way. Volunteers need to be needed, and when we further empower them to do what we know they are capable of, they will more than often surprise and instill pride in both you and the members of the community they serve.

Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he was appointed fire chief in 2000. He is very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., as communications director and conference committee chair. Email Tom at and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept

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