Leadership – The Intangible Art

“Leadership is intangible, and therefore no weapon ever designed can replace it.”  — General Omar Bradley


This is the way I see it over the rim of my cup o’ Joe.  Today’s fire service is faced with countless difficulties including economics, extreme technical leaps, generational differences in values and ethics and now even post career survival with retirements no longer a guarantee. These factors are or will be a great strain on fire service leadership well into the next decade. Although recent wars will bring out of the armed forces recruits well trained in leadership skills and experience in high stress environments, we of the current generation are still struggling to deal with this legacy of leadership or perhaps lack thereof that we have been left with.  In this, I mean no offense to the many excellent chief officers I have known, who loved their occupation and devoted themselves to it.  But I do refer in general to their generation, which grew out of the Vietnam era, turning their backs to authority, structure and uniformity, replacing it with a distinctly anti-paramilitary culture.   Perhaps it happened without intent, a natural result of changes in society, which the fire service reflects over time.  Perhaps there was justification.  Life in the fire house was a hard life back in the day.  But we have been left with a gap in effective leadership which must be filled.  As society continues to lean in a more lawless direction, it will be institutions devoted to the public good, like the fire service, that hold the scales in check.  As long as fire service leadership is able to maintain the “vigil”.

Roll Call, Academy Class 12-02, photo by author.

In recent weeks I have been continuing in my role as Drill Master for the local fire academy.  Every day is demanding, not only for the candidates, but for the drill instructors as well.  Its a para-military academy, as it should be.  But this also dramatically increases the need for supervision, self-discipline, solid leadership principles and traits among the academy cadre.  I am not only responsible for shaping the recruits, but I am also at the same time, mentoring and guiding our young leaders in role of drill instructor.  In the academy, opportunities for learning abound on both sides of the line.  In pursuit of refining my own skill in the art of leadership, I have gone back to my roots in recent years and have found no lack of excellent models and sources to pattern my self-study after.

Perhaps my words seem extreme.   But when you take a look at the larger picture of where our country is headed, the clouds look dark.  After nearly ten years of war, financial disaster throughout the world, a bucket full of society on the edge issues, …I don’t see the glass half full.  If you see the clouds on the horizon the same way I do, you are probably looking for a way to help the fire service around you prepare for the future.  As I said, I have looked  back to my roots in the United States Marine Corps.  “No surprise there!” you might say if you are familiar with my blog, but pour another cup and gimme your ear.

Marine NCO’s are known as the “Backbone” of the Corps. Their leadership among the rank and file is critical to the Marine Corps success.

In his book, “Six Essential Elements of Leadership”¹, Col. Wesley L. Fox relates the story of the Marine Corp in the Vietnam Era and afterward, a period of time I was very familiar with as a young Marine in the post-Vietnam Marine Corps prior to Desert Storm. Col. Fox writes that in the late 1960’s the Marine Corp began to stress education and training for its senior sergeants, a practice that was not the norm before. Prior to this sergeants learned from each other, on the job mentoring and guidance, after hours around the barracks, life lived through veteran guided learning and correcting. The schools were intended to make up for leadership shortfalls created by having promoted a vast number of the Senior NCO’s to the officer ranks to rapidly create needed platoon leaders for the Korean War Era. Years later, the loss of the knowledge and experience of those NCO’s from the ranks created a lack of leadership experience among the most critical part of the enlisted rank structure, known as the “backbone of the Corps”, its Senior Sgt s. On top of that, economic changes allowed many of the Marines who would have guided the younger Marines on and off duty, were able for the first time to afford to live out of the barracks in pursuit family life, which took them away from the younger Marines. They no longer hung out after hours and shared common spaces. It took decades for those schools to help the Marine Corps recover from that critical leadership shortfall. So much so, that it was a very real influence during my enlistment in the early 1980s.  If you are looking for an excellent book of personal interpretations of leadership ethics, the Colonel’s book is one I highly recommend.  It has helped me to understand our own struggles within the fire service.

In recent decades, the fire service has experienced a similar gap in leadership training. The need for strong leadership has never been greater, but the pool of available “NCO’s” is lacking for many varied reasons. Hosts of retirements, changes in levels of fires to learn the trade from, changes in the work experience of the average firefighter, changes in how leadership training is understood have left the fire service without a sound list of principles to carry forward. Like the Marines, the fire service has begun an effort to educate its young officers anew through standardized company officer training (IFSAC, ProBoard, etc.) But as many of you know, this falls short in teaching leadership and you cannot replace experience with knowledge alone. In addition, efforts have been made to overcome the shortfall with mentoring, which is definitely a step in the right direction, but understanding what “mentoring” consists of when you haven’t been mentored yourself can be difficult at best. Some departments have done well with mentoring programs, others give only lip service.  Others have tried “formula’s” for mentoring success only to find they are merely pissing in the wind.

Like the Marine NCO’s, the company officer is the “Backbone” of the American Fire Service, enforcing procedure and discipline among the members of the line. Why wouldn’t you train these people to lead? Photo by author, …with a shaky cell phone cam.

Try as it might, the fire service is not the cohesive organization the Marines are. Each individual fire department is a kingdom unto itself, governed only by its leader’s interpretation of a loose principle called “Standards”. Since officer training was not given to the man at the top, there is no great understanding of why it should be given to those on the bottom.  But why wouldn’t you want to train the people who you expect to be in harms way, enforce your policies, keep your people alive, keep your department reputation intact…to lead?  No offense intended to IFSTA, but they forfeited their rightful place when they failed to continue to produce the “Leadership in the Fire Service” text.  There are currently no texts on leadership written expressly for firefighters.  To be sure there are a few books, self published and with some success, but none recognized as a standard.  There aren’t even any degrees in leadership.  Business leadership, yes.  But the art and science of leading people for the sake of public good is not considered something worthy of a degree’s recognition.  At least not in the civilian world.

No wonder we struggle to get anything done as a whole. But we do have the strength of brotherhood and a set of tools that can be brought to bear here. We have the ability to share ideas and experience and knowledge on a level unheard. Since before 9/11, a steady stream of education through collective discussion and debate has taken place on the internet and continues today in ever increasingly innovative ways. The lessons learned in the heart of the city can be communicated to the lowliest Lt, in the tiniest fire department. Conferences and conventions produce opportunities for networking (which can and often does leads to mentoring) and leadership continues to be a major area of growth.  Blogs like this one and others on fireemsblogs.com, combined with social media like Facebook also contribute, are helping to create access to leadership experience that would otherwise never be possible.

"Tailboard Session"

“If you want to build a a ship; don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
-Antoine de Saint Exupéry

But in the end, you have to apply it for it to be effective. Leadership will be learned, usually by bad example if there is nothing else available. But even then, there are lessons to be learned.  And to be honest, we are not all created the same. Not all of us have the characteristics of good leaders. Some of us are better suited as technical experts and so we should be, we are needed. Some of us are better suited for a particular field of knowledge. Some of us, are perhaps born with leadership traits in our blood (called charisma). But talent doesn’t win the day. Not without learning to apply those talents. Hopefully in pursuit of the art, you will find a pathway to set yourself or someone else on.  A course to foster leadership wherever you find yourself.  You don’t have to wait for promotion to begin.  Look for a mentor.  A mentor does not look for a disciple, YOU have to seek the mentor.

Leadership is intangible. It must be illuminated. But when you illuminate it, it reveals our weaknesses and shines light upon our failures. It exposes our pride and ego, our uglier side, so unfitting of the image of the selfless American Fireman. So the learning of it can be painful.  Because it is intangible, it is hard to grasp.  Its hard to grasp because its not about the leader, its about the follower.  Its about self-sacrifice.  A hard to face concept and those that do not understand how to effectively lead sometimes resent those who do.  That is why there are necessary leadership traits like “courage” and “fortitude”.  Sometimes holding your beliefs close and not surrendering them can cost you a great deal.  Sometimes events cause you to doubt yourself, question your methods.  But leadership is a known quantity when it is sought out and its principles continue to be proven trustworthy time and time again.  Hey, when God puts something together, He does a really good job.

One last thing to cogitate on.  Why should you embrace this art?  What’s in it for you?  Hmm.  (Hear the sip of hot joe..) A long, long road is what awaits you.  I believe there is a great demand for the highest quality of leadership amidst our firehouses. The tendency to ignore  training  our young firefighters and officers as potential leaders is a critical error that must be righted if the fire service is to continue to be the honorable, respected profession that is has become over the past two centuries.  You can be known for a lot of things, but I can’t think of a more admirable one.

Coach Herb Brooks said it like this, “This cannot be a team of common men.   Common men go nowhere.”  I am not satisfied with being a common man, …  I don’t think you are either.


¹ Fox, Wesley L. Col USMC (Ret.), “Six Essential Elements of Leadership”, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Md., 2011

1 Comment

  • Sid Newby says:

    Great post. I use the Marines leadership traits and their publications a lot. You hit the nail on the head. I’m glad I’m not the only one that has had these thoughts and ideas. Keep up the good work.

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