My Thoughts on Leadership by Donnie Norman

Donnie Norman photo
Donnie Norman, Fire Chief, Travis Co. Emergency Services

Leadership can broadly be described as the ability to guide and inspire, influence and take charge of a group of people in the attempt to strive towards and reach a certain predetermined goal or objective. Leadership is not about titles, rank or organizational charts.  Arguments abound as to whether leaders are made or born; whichever it is, there are many qualities that any leader should possess.

Unlike any other form of leadership, the one in the fire service requires more than most any other profession. Courage, credibility, discipline and knowledge as well as a sense of selflessness are paramount for a fire service leader.

Different from other jobs due to the high stakes involved, leadership in the fire service is a unique calling that presents its own challenges. Each leader needs to be a team player, have a positive outlook on life, be level-headed and clear of thought. Among the most important and desirable qualities of a leader in the fire service is the possession of excellent communication skills, while recognizing that generational differences influence our ideas, expectations, values and behaviors at work.  Leaders can never lose sight of the fact that everyone wants to be treated with respect and recognize that respect might look and feel different, based on differing experiences and perspectives.  Effective leaders have excellent motivational skills and rarely resort to intimidation to influence. Motivated firefighters are proud of the work they do, perform better, create a positive atmosphere around the station and experience greater job satisfaction. I often remind the chief officers in my organization that it is ok to get that white shirt dirty from time to time. Taking a bag of trash to the dumpster, rolling a hose after a lengthy event or simply grabbing a chamois when the firefighters are drying off the truck will inspire your organization while simultaneously demonstrating leadership.

Clarity of thought and vision are also critical in fire service leadership, enabling each individual fire officer to carry out his/her work with the required professionalism and integrity, while calling on the fire crew to follow suit.

Leadership also goes hand in hand with level-headedness and an ability to stay calm even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and odds. This is because the job mainly involves operations in tense situations with the potential to result in loss of lives. Staying calm and sensible would allow a fire service leader to maintain control of the followers in the high pressure environment and provide them with the requisite leadership, while fostering team work. The ability to focus on the present and the future rather than the past enables a leader to respond to actual problems and thus do what firefighters do best, serve the public.

In closing I want to reinforce the need for continuing education.  The importance in personal development can’t be over stated. Whether you seek formal education, certification classes, or attend a symposium, you will take away something of value. When you stop learning you stop leading.