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Volunteer Vision: True leaders see the abilities in others

August 23, 2019
By Tom Desorcy

Does a leader need recognition? There are those who would say yes, they should receive recognition all the time. Getting recognized for what you do is an important motivator. Just like crossing the finish line in the first place. It really feels good.

When I say recognition, however, I’m referring to recognizing others, not in the form of an award or honour, but in recognizing he or she has the ability to do something he or she might not normally do or be expected to do.

Recognition is one of the biggest attributes any leader can have and that means seeing leadership abilities in others and setting them up for success.

I like to think of the past 35 years of the fire service like a series of horse races. This is not just one long event, but a number of events over time. Think about this. Would you consider a thoroughbred racehorse as a leader? Then again, maybe you wouldn’t, at least not all the time.

You see, an owner has a stable and horses that are bred and trained to do a specific job. Numerous people are employed, all with certain tasks and one common goal. Who is the true leader in this situation?

One would argue the owner of the stable or the horse, and others might say the trainers are in charge. Actually, all would be correct, as for a time each person that has a role is in command and control for that particular moment.

Take race day as a prime example. The reins are turned over to the jockey, the person tasked with taking the investment to the finish line safely and successfully. At that moment, the person riding the horse makes all the decisions. They are not just hanging on. They are not just there for the ride.

Sound familiar when it comes to the fire department? How often have you seen those that are ready to step up and take the lead or those that are just along for the ride. Bigger still, are you able to recognize the difference?

In my 19 years in the fire service, and dare I say it’s been longer than that, I always considered myself somewhat of a leader even though I wasn’t necessarily the person in charge. As a chief officer, I’ve seen many colleagues who have the ability to be leaders in their organization, but I didn’t feel confident in their ability to let go of the reins themselves.

Recognizing leaders in your department is the first step, but having the confidence to know they can ride the horse is the mark of a true leader.

When I first began as a chief, I found myself in a position of always being the person in charge and, while that is the job of a fire chief, there is a lot more to it. Yes, you are and always will be, the face of the department but you can’t be overseeing each and every move of your people. That’s why we structure people in lower ranks of the chain. A single horse may be front and centre on race day, but behind the horse is its team.

Over the years, I’ve had the mindset that I should be putting people into a position where they could actually do my job – show them what it takes, all the while putting them in a place to be skilled and feel confident in their abilities. No, this is not for everyone and this is where the ability to recognize comes into play. Not every horse in the barn will compete in a stakes race but a good leader can spot the contenders.

Not everyone is cut out to be a fire-service leader. After all, followers are necessary for a department to function properly. At times those followers need to take charge and, when treated as the leaders they could be, they will take you to the finish line every time.

It’s been said the best thing we can teach a new firefighter is how to be an old firefighter.

Keep them safe, give them the skills they need and, most of all, recognize their hidden abilities, and find a way to pull out their strengths.


Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Originally a radio broadcaster, Tom’s voice could be heard in the early 1990s across Canada as one of the hosts of Country Coast to Coast. Tom is very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C as communications director and conference committee chair. Contact Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept.