Character in Leadership

Move over a skosh, hot Joe comin’ through! Man,..its cold up here in the North today! Say, a fella’ I know was discussing fire service leadership, and you know me, I’ll allow that is right up my alley! So we sat and brewed up some thoughts together and this is what spilt out:

Before we go on to our next Leadership Principle, “Being technically and tactically proficient”, we’ll chew on a few of the traits of leadership between principles. I mentioned them in my last diatribe, and they are important because they provide the character to put the principles of leadership into action. There are 14 Leadership Traits that I have in mind, but depending on your list there may be a few more or a few less (although I wouldn’t be cuttin’ much). This pot o’ joe is only intended for one of them. Let us discuss our “deportment” or our “bearing”..

“A leader must be visible and exhibit confidence under any set of circumstances. The determination to prevail must be felt by all.” –Lt. General Hal Moore USA Ret.

I am always learning. My good friend Berg is always teaching and I’m pick’n up little bits from him and he from me. Berg is fun loving and loud, but he also has a way with folks, a confidence that tells you he is not only capable, but competent. A self assurance. BEARING. Photo by Author.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of leadership is how to present yourself as a leader. From the beginning of your efforts at leadership the way you “deliver” yourself as a leader to those who follow, whether conscious or subconscious, has as much impact on your performance and its effect as does anything else. I’ve known men that could recite phrases from the company officer manual, and quote various dissertations on the science of leadership, but couldn’t get the fella’s to push a broom in the engine bay let alone listen to them at critical moments. Among all of the skills and traits which come together to create leadership, “Bearing” is one of the least understood and taught, yet is a foundational trait. Most leadership training barely gives it lip service. Bearing can make the difference between whether a message is clearly understood, received willingly or with hostility and often whether or not its heard at all. Bearing is mufti-faceted as well. It may hide your fear or if you have poor bearing, display it. It might convey your anger while you withhold wrath. It can be a motivating factor or it could be the de-motivating factor if you lack it. It is that which causes the group to stop and take note. It all depends on how you employ it, whether you are aware of its effect or not. Its more than how you hold yourself, it is how you physically communicate yourself.

Lets talk practical application. You move to the door, the black hallway beckons. Sometimes you are moving so fast, and taking in so much information, there is not time to think. You are in the door, on the floor. Moving forward, looking for the orange glow. But other times, there is that pause. Too much time to think and you begin to feel the presence of danger and the split second comes where you think, “I hope I come out of this”. Maybe you’re just caught flat footed and don’t know what to do, maybe you weren’t ready for fire. Maybe you’ve walked into something you’re not sure you can get your people out of. Few men or women in our line of work express these thoughts, but it is critical that it doesn’t show in your ..bearing. An aggressive, determined officer moves confidently and with purpose in those moments, deliberate, informed action, calm voice, a positive attitude, exhibiting a state of mind that says “the mission will be completed, we will get the job done” and showing NO FEAR. Often in the fire service, instead of fear, the problem is a lack of focus or indecision. Not knowing exactly what to do or say to get results. So you just start yelling instead! Among the many things that go into being decisive and taking action, your bearing is that which communicates your self-confidence. Your “Poker Face”.  Anything else conveys indecision and in the case of a structure fire, ..or worse, communicates doubt to those you lead. EVERYTHING you do in front of those you lead, involves bearing.

Another old “snap” from Weegee’s lens. This one shows Jakes working a cellar fire, likely in the 1940′s. Such men measured much about a man by his talk, his walk and the manner in which he gave orders. What would it take for you to lead such men? Photo used by permission.

So what is “Bearing” and why is it such a decisive trait? Well, its very simply how you conduct and carry yourself, how you convey confidence, how you walk, how you stand. It is also how you take in your surroundings, how you meet another person’s gaze, how you physically handle adversity or excitement, how you talk to those you lead, your voice on the radio. Your “bearing” conveys a message as sure as your words. Mostly, it is a reflection of your true self in action mode and is largely an unconscious trait or a byproduct of your other traits. Have you ever met a leader on an emergency scene or maybe a training event when you just couldn’t help thinking, “This guys’ in command? Geez’…” What was it that caused the voice in your head to think those thoughts? Aside from per-formed biased, ..was it the way they looked at you, or didn’t look at you while speaking? Was it a lack of confidence you sensed in their manner? Maybe they seem confident enough, but lack any acknowledgement that you exist. A leader who consciously and/or skillfully employs bearing in such a way as to win your confidence or compliance is using your first impressions in their favor and whether cultivated or naturally gifted, these first impressions carry enormous weight. At times, this first impression is so strong that it can tip the balance for the leader in a difficult situation. But you must be a discerning follower too; not all leaders with excellent bearing know what they are doing. It can be a front to hide other problems. With a leader you know well, bearing can communicate a variety of messages; “All is well”, “This is bad, but we’ve seen worse”, “This looks bad and I can’t decide what to do about it” or maybe “You stay here while I go see if the chief needs help..”

Mike Strank. Gave the ulitmate sacrifice on Iwo Jima in WWII. Known as a Marine’s Marine. I was once told by the wife of an old Marine, that you can tell a Marine by his bearing, “you boys got moxie!” She said. Mike died leading his Marines from the front.

I am a fan of military history. The course of military history is full of crisis points, when at the moment of impact, decisive actions were carried forward due to the “bearing” displayed by a variety of leaders at every level. Bearing isn’t dependent on rank or position. It is a mark of self-confidence, awareness of surroundings, and self-control. An excellent example from history would be the way an officer in the American Civil War Era was still expected to lead his people from the front. He was expected to stand tall, ignore the air, thick with shrapnel and lead showing no fear or indecision. The reason for this suicidal behavior, (and it did cost an enormous toll in officer lives) was that the infantryman of those times looked to the “gentleman” or “officer” to determine whether or not things were going well. They looked to their officers for a sense of direction and purpose. If the officers were afraid, the troops were afraid. Seeing the officer in front, leading the way, frequently made a huge difference in tactical success. Even though tactics changed throughout the centuries, the presence of the officer or sergeant as a stable, knowledgeable, guiding influence among men going into combat is still the same. There are many well known examples of this, but sometimes the best examples are of leaders that are not much removed from you and me. I think back to the officer who led my company as we headed into the L.A. Riots back in ’92. He was calm and didn’t say much, but that which he did say was calculated to keep the crew focused and ready. I don’t think I saw him ever run or break stride the entire time we were in danger, but when it came to protecting me, he was there at my side to toss me into the jump seat when the threat present indicated we needed to get gone in a hurry. His calm ever present grasp of situational awareness (a phrase we didn’t ever hear back then) was instrumental in my own mental condition. Its no secret in this crowd that firefighters rarely need encouragement to rush into danger, but far more often, they desire and praise that calm, steady officer who provides a sense of self-discipline and control that we all admire, even when the greatest threat is our own impulses that need to be properly managed. Who do you want to lead you into the fight, the guy running all over the place and trying to control every single nozzle and tool or the one who stands in the center of the storm, sizing things up, providing guidance and orders where needed, but other wise, allowing the leaders within the organization room to operate and do their job? I have been both. I have been in the midst of chaos and even though in my mind I knew what I wanted to do and for my company members to do, my words still came out jumbled or accelerated. I have also had moments of victory over myself when I knew that things were flowing a little better and my “bearing” reflected that. It is embarrassing to admit to yourself or to your peers that you were “wiggin’ out” or behaving in a headless chicken mode. But, nonetheless, unless you are the gifted one who was born with the “chillin’” expression on your face, most of us have to face these moments as we learn to control ourselves in the midst of the initial chaos created on scene.

I cringe when I hear civilians, with armchair QB skills state emphatically, “things weren’t too bad until the fire department got there”.. We have to be better than this. Like Bill Carey frequently points out, “Expect Fire”, Things things shouldn’t surprise us. Practice exercising control over yourself as you lead the company or companies into battle.

“SeaBass” is a young Jake I know who exemplifies the up and coming leadership in the fire service. Aggressive and alert, he needs no bravodo, the way he carries himself says it all. Such traits indicate leadership potential.

What about in the firehouse? How is “bearing” applied there? Everyday, every hour and every moment! On and off duty. If you have displayed excellent bearing, then you have attracted attention and people have noted your self-confidence and charisma. And they will expect it all the time. This can cause jealousy and envy among those who do not wish to put forth the effort to develop bearing or those who simply lack any comprehension of its critical place in leadership.  It will also attract those who seek to be competently led.  But keep in mind, one can have excellent bearing, yet at the critical moment, lose control or find a way to not be present when needed most. Those who know the work and are looking for decisive leadership are aware of the difference instinctively and even if they cannot define it, know when it is genuine if they have been around long enough to learn to recognize it. Those with good bearing, but weak character in other traits, win the crowd with first impressions, especially those that are not discerning or lack experience. But eventually, the weaknesses in character shine through. Sometimes embarrassingly so. I’m sure you can think of an officer who has dropped in your estimation through a lack of good judgement, integrity or self-control. And when those bad moments happen, they can be brutal. It takes a long time to recover from them. 24/7. When you are in a position of leadership, your performance is being watched all the time. Careless moments can cause serious setbacks.

I used to know some gents who specialized in forcibly instilling lessons in bearing and deportment that literally last a lifetime. There is a reason they still ingrain this kind of training, it sets a sets it very high. Photo by USMC. Public Domain.

So what should we do to develop our own bearing?

1. Set the highest standard for yourself in personal conduct, on and off duty. Tell yourself that even if no one is watching, your own consciousness is aware. You will know the truth. Be known for integrity.

2. Study your role model if you have one, if you don’t, you should be looking for one. Even us old dogs look to the older dogs of the past to find our way.

3. Do not accept the minimum requirements, but go beyond, striving to improve.

4. As a self-motivator, remember that as you are watching your role model, someone lower in the clan is watching you as well, take up slack on a regular basis!

Take Care, Leatherhead109..


  • stephen miller says:

    The common/basic feature of leadership is that of -‘followership’! Another is that in order to lead, one must first learn to follow instruction …

    There is always a higher authority.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      I completely agree, “always a higher authority”. If you are in a place of leadership and don’t feel accountable to someone, you’re in a dangerous position. Further, if there is no one else there, you are still accountable to the ones you are leading. Thanks for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *