One Leadership Style That Covers It All

Daredevil photographer Antonio Grambone, 46, photographed forest fires in the National Park of Cilento and Vallo di Diano in the province of Salerno in Italy.

Daredevil photographer Antonio Grambone, 46, photographed forest fires in the National Park of Cilento and Vallo di Diano in the province of Salerno in Italy.

Via Wiselike:

Do you advocate the same leadership style for all industries? Why or why not? Each industry has different qualities. For instance, people put their lives on the line when they work in fire safety, while retail is about money. Because industries are so different, should leadership styles be different as well? If so, which styles work best for industries such as public safety, health, and retail?

Here’s my answer:

I believe one leadership style works best across all industries. Here’s why.

In the 1990’s, I flew air ambulance trips moving sick and injured patients from one part of the world to another. On one occasion, we were transporting a gentleman from Chicago to Boca Grande, Florida. He was interested in what we did (I was a paramedic and my partner was a nurse) and how we worked as a team of two in a small metal tube (a Lear Jet) flying 400 MPH through the clouds. After thoroughly questioning us, I asked him what he did. He said he owned and operated several companies, describing a variety of organizations ranging from manufacturing to service businesses. I asked him how he knew so much about so many different businesses? He said, “Oh, I know a lot about one thing: How to lead people.”

I believe he’s right. He had one leadership style: servant leadership. He created a bond with the people he worked with and the people his companies provided goods and services to.

The parallels between leading in high-stakes business and leading in high-risk situations are quite the same. Competence, trust, and loyalty are qualities that span across a variety of areas. Whether it’s retail (selling things), non-profits (supporting people and causes), or healthcare (healing people) all involve people and require leaders who are inherently motivated and embrace learning (competent) and have a strong relationship with their followers (trust and loyalty).

I believe that’s servant leadership.

On Retiring: Two Things I Learned

It takes both physical and mental skills.

After 31 years of fun and adventure, I retire from Palm Beach County Fire Rescue at the end of this week. I spent this last month visiting as many stations and crews as I could. During my visits with my brother and sister firefighters, I listened to the colorful conversations and looked around at the diversity of experience, ranging from brand new probies to officers with over 20 years of know-how. I suddenly realized that over the course of my fire service career I acquired an assortment of both physical and mental skills that have helped me be a ready firefighter and a servant leader.

Be Ready For Anything

The fire service is dangerous business. People, both those we serve and those we serve with are counting on us. When the community calls, whether they’re a mother with two children trapped inside of a locked apartment filled with thick, black smoke or a lonely grandmother who just wakes up scared late at night and needs some reassurance, they are counting on us. We represent hope for them and we have to be ready. We can’t just settle for competence; we have to be masters at what we do and work as a team. We have to be ready for anything. We have to be ready firefighters.

Practicing extrication with my crew.

Practicing extrication with my crew.

From day one at the fire academy and throughout my career, I learned those obvious skills required of every firefighter – maintaining and operating tools and equipment, driving apparatus, stretching hose lines, directing fire streams, opening a roof with an axe (now a saw), removing glass from windows, crawling through a house filled with smoke, and many more things. And because we’re a “fire rescue” service, I learned the EMS skills every paramedic uses to save lives – patient evaluation, intubating, starting IVs, giving medications, and defibrillating patients. I had to be a master at what I do. I had to be ready for anything.

Put Others First

When followers work in complex and dangerous situations, leadership makes the difference between life, injury, or death. Those firefighters at risk desperately need leadership that looks out for them – they need servant leaders.

Standing proud with my Station 31 crew.

Standing proud with my Station 31 crew.

Becoming a company and chief officer meant that I get good at other things – communicating effectively by talking to people, listening to them, and understanding them. I developed into a fast, effective decision maker, employing sound judgement and logical reasoning, and using resources wisely in chaotic conditions. I became a motivator, in good times and bad, inspiring and guiding others toward goals and objectives. I created detailed, executable plans for training, inspections, and other operations. I learned to assess situations and people to facilitate constant improvement. I grew other leaders, investing time and effort to develop their individual leadership skills. I became a builder of teams, spending time and resources to help them get better. I stayed curious and came to be a continuous learner, seeking self-improvement and organizational growth, while remaining adaptable, envisioning the future, and helping lead change. I truly believed that to ensure a safer organization that continues to get better, I had to put others first.

I guess my simple message is this: Maintain your skills and work to improve them. Stay curious, keep exploring and discovering, and continue to learn and grow. Always think of others and put them first. It takes both physical and mental skills to be a ready firefighter and a servant leader.

Can We Do It Better?

This question always lingers, “Can we do it better?” What does it take? How do we get everyone involved and make it stick? How do we build a culture that wants to do it better?


We live in different and dangerous times today. Our incidents are getting crazier and more complex. We’re challenged by mysterious bio-hazards, unprecedented natural disasters, and unexpected terrorism that can happen anywhere. Our communities are becoming more diverse and they need our help with risk reduction and education.

To face these ever-changing and complex challenges, we must continue to do it better. There are a lot of people counting on us, so we have to be ready for anything, at anytime, and anywhere.

Here are a few suggestions on how we can do it better:

Train and Work Safer

Train, respond, and work safely. Wear your seat belts and your SCBA. Stop breathing so much smoke. Follow your policies and procedures and execute them safely. Stay aware of everything, and watch over your brothers and sisters; have their backs. Speak up when you need to, in the right way. Maintain the readiness of your equipment, and use it properly and when you’re supposed to. Practice personal accountability, all the time. And, know where you are at all times.

Practice and Master Your Skills

Whether operating a saw or starting an IV line, don’t just settle for proficiency; be a master at what you do. Stay physically fit, because your work involves great physical exertion. Keep learning about everything. Know why and how we do things, not just what to do. Be disciplined and use the incident command system. Constantly train for readiness and improvement. Always look back at what you did and ask, “How can I do it better next time?”

Act Like a Professional with Honor and Integrity

Be courageous, but calm. Be patient, because it can be difficult dealing with people who are in a considerable state of stress. Sometimes they are the people you work with. Practice a positive image, everywhere and all the time. Set a good example for the young people in your community. Get involved in your fire department and your community, and provide ideas to make the job safer and the community better.

Treat Others Better and Practice Servant Leadership

Be nice to everyone you encounter, especially the people you work with. Practice compassion and consideration for everyone. Engage the people in your community, including the leaders, staff, and citizens. Get to know them and what they need. Improve relationships with other agencies, especially law enforcement; we need to have their backs. Be a servant to others, because that’s the true calling of the fire service.

It’s not a matter of can we do it better, we have to do it better. Start this discussion in your fire department. Ask that lingering question, “Can we do it better?” And if each of us keeps calm and makes a real effort, we will do it better.

We Want To Be Everywhere

Yes, as chief officers we want to be everywhere. We manage multiple fire stations and lead teams of firefighters and officers. We want to visit every station and listen to all of their stories, suggestions, and yes, criticisms. We want be at the fires, the bad motor vehicle accidents, and maybe even some of the medical calls. We want to get things done for them that will help them do their jobs. We want to help them grow. But we can’t be everywhere. Or can we?

LW Street Painting

Spending time with a team of firefighters at a local city event.

In essence, we need to remember our role and embed ourselves deeply into it with the intent of developing a local influence that translates throughout the entire organization. It means we impact smaller teams of firefighters and officers who will do even better things than we do. It means that we intentionally invest in a few at a time so that they can impact the many.

If we do this, we will actually be everywhere.

Question: How are you investing your time at your fire department?

A Philosophy for Team Success

AP Photo/Darron Cummings Former UCLA head coach John Wooden talks to a group of students and college players in Indianapolis in 2005.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Former UCLA head coach John Wooden talks to a group of students and college players in Indianapolis in 2005.

The Company Officer as a Coach

Company officers alone cannot, and should not, handle the details that turn their crew’s objectives into reality. They must “coach for performance.” Company officers become coaches when they lead their crew (team) with a philosophy of encouragement and support.

Coach John Wooden, the exciting leader of the legendary UCLA Basketball dynasty, once said, “We may not control the outcome, but we can control the input — our effort.”

A capable and well-trained crew that embraces your philosophy of being prepared and ready to operate, at any time, during any intensity level, is safer and goes to the emergency scene ready to give its best effort. Your philosophy of encouragement and support is the leadership input that they need.

As the company officer, or the coach of your team, you need to lead rather than pull hose, raise ladders, or do any of the other detailed work. As their coach, develop a plan to guide your team to better performance. Here’s a simple plan that you can do:

Support your team

Without the right skills and resources to perform their job, no amount of direction from the company officer will accomplish the job. Officers acting as coaches will support their teams by making sure that they have the proper knowledge, skills and abilities to safely and effectively complete their tasks. It all begins before the event through sustained training, together as a team.

Know when to push your team

Just like when the coach of a sports team knows when to yell, company officers need to know when to “push” their team when they need it. Observant coaches know when team performance is lagging and when to apply pressure. And knowing how to apply that pressure, or how take the team to the next level, is just as important.

Bring out the best in your team

People are different; people are alike. An open-minded coach knows the individual capabilities of each team member. They see the strengths and weaknesses of the team. This allows them to bring out the best in the team by taking advantage of their strengths and improving their weaknesses. Good coaches know how to make the team the best they can be.

Monitor your team’s performance

Keeping track of the individual abilities of each team member is another characteristic of a good coach. The goals you set through your philosophy and practices will identify an action plan to follow, and a clear path toward achieving it. Talk with them often about the status of the team’s goals, replaying any improvement needed, and complementing all improvement achieved. Be ready to coach the team during difficult times and good times.

Encourage your team

Everyone needs to feel that they’re doing good work and to feel appreciated. A compliment is a great motivator, while public criticism or embarrassment is not. As the coach, your comments, whether made directly to your team or talking to some else about your team, can make all the difference.

Successful firefighting crews (teams) perform best when their company officers (coaches) lead them rather than get involved in the details. Successful company officers build their firefighting crews to perform to their potential, any where, at any time and under any intensity level, by preparing and training them with a personal philosophy that encourages and supports them. Make an effort to build your potential as a coach and pass it on to your team. This is a philosophy that will lead to team success.

How do you influence the inputs, or efforts of your team?

This article was published first at on December 5, 2007.

Read these books for more leadership lessons from Coach Wooden:

It’s A People Game: More “From Buddy To Boss”

More snippets From Buddy to Boss: Effective Fire Service Leadership, by Chase Sargent.

The Organizational Foundation for Leadership

The fire service is a people game: Win people – win the game; lose people – lose the game. I am not talking about not holding members accountable for their actions or kissing anyone’s rear end. Instead I am suggesting that everything we do in the organization is with and about people. We live, eat, train, respond, and even die with people in our organization. In addition, we don’t make widgets; we serve people. Every action we take is intended to prepare for or actually deliver service to people who may be facing the worst days of their lives.

Why Senior Leaders Must Lead

Everything we do, from our first day on the job, to how we help maintain our station and equipment, to the day we become an officer is viewed and recorded by the people we work with. And they never forget. So leadership, really, should begin on day one!

Senior leadership must surround itself with educated, competent, and committed members who have the expertise necessary to fulfill the jobs at hand, so that delegation becomes a matter of trust and respect. There can be no more damming action than to ignore what others say on a continual basis and implement only one’s own ideas. If you surround yourself with knuckleheads, you are going to get knucklehead solutions, and you are going to wonder why, four or five years (or sooner) down the road, no one believes in you or will follow you.

The reality is, leaders must practice and show leadership, everywhere and all the time, and not just speak about it. People are always watching and they will judge your leadership activity (or inactivity), and they will remember it. They judge you on your success, not your words.

How do people (the customers you serve and the members you work with) see you every day?

Getting Your People to Change Starts With You

Old_firefightersGetting your people to change starts with you.

Actions speak louder than words, and we hear it all the time, “It’s hard to change people with deeply embedded traditional behaviors!”

To be innovative and keep up with the rapidly changing complexities in our world, WE must be willing to change our behaviors and beliefs. And leaders must go first and set the pace and ideal behaviors for the rest of the organization. 

Here’s a way WE can begin to change:

  • WE need to be brutally honest about the behaviors that we must change.
  • WE must be willing to move away from what we all know as the business of yesterday.
  • WE have to build speed through trust. As trust goes up, work and time to results go down.

How do you get yourself motivated to make the change in the first place? When should you take massive action verses practicing incremental change?

Leadership Doesn’t Come From Behind the Desk

From the movie Beauty and the Boss, 1932.

From the movie Beauty and the Boss, 1932.

Recently, I listened, with great concern, to two different questions about the same subject, a failure to communicate. On one occasion, I was part of a management meeting where the attendees were asking, “Why don’t they understand what we are doing?” Another time, while talking to people I supervise, they asked, “What is going on?” This roadblock, or maybe wall, in communication is a huge problem and affects everything. So what can leaders (even a mid-level leader like me) do to break through this wall? You can increase your “face time” with your people and build trust; to show you care.

Leaders, you need to get out from behind the desk (and get away from the continuous meeting table too; by the way read this book: Read This Before Our Next Meeting) to visit, mentor and socialize with your people. Communicating in person, as opposed to email, memo, and policy has always been and still remains extremely important, even more so in today’s complex and fast-moving world.

Everyone has their idea for a definition of leadership. Books, articles, and seminars tell us that leadership is, “the ability of an individual to influence others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization.” Here’s my take on leadership, “Leadership is influencing people to act by providing purpose, direction, and motivation while working to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.” That is not done from behind a desk or in a meeting.

Effective personal communication is no small task today, especially in very large organizations. With customer and community expectations increasing, issues with completing training and countless other factors, everyone feels a heavy burden, both physically and mentally, that no one is immune to.

Within our fast-moving culture, we have come to a crossroads with regard to communicating with our people. What happened to the talent of one-on-one, face-to-face mentoring? Email has made the communication process faster, but it’s hindered, to some degree, our willingness to get out from behind the desk and talk. It’s hard to show you care about them and are interested in their problems in an email. Relationships and trust are not created from emails!

I believe we need to put more emphasis on face-time communication. Technology (email, social media, videos, etc.) alone does not create change, relationships with people do (relationships provide purpose, direction, and motivation). Leaders, you must talk, talk, talk! And then listen, listen, listen!

Leadership involvement, getting out there and leading your people from the front will increase awareness and maximize performance. The ongoing demands of today’s world require that leaders communicate well and often. You cannot provide the right kind of leadership needed from behind a desk!

What needs to happen in your organization to improve communication? How can you help make it happen?

Problems of Organizational Leadership

Gaius Petronius Arbiter

“We trained hard…but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by-reorganizing; and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.”

Peter Arbiter, Roman Legionnaire, 210 B.C.

The “organizational leader” is someone who is not in the front line of leadership on the street (point of the spear), but rather an administrative or tactical commander who supports the teams from near or afar. The organizational leader’s role is not to micro-manage teams, but rather to help facilitate their actions. It requires that they keep communication lines open and listen to what their teams really need to get the job done.

If you are an organizational leader you know that sometimes stuff happens, goals don’t always get reached, and occasionally productivity is stifled. You can tinker with the processes, but you know that real steady progress depends on the front line people. Instead of just reorganizing, how can you help your teams move forward? What can you do to prevent confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization?

WHY: A Simple Approach to Leadership

There are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders who start with WHY have the ability to inspire others.

Watch Simon Sinek’s TED presentation on how great leaders inspire action.