What Makes an Effective Leader in the Volunteer Fire Service?

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

LEADERSHIP TRAITS

Leadership in the volunteer fire and EMS service makes or breaks the entire organization. Leaders are the standard-bearer. Leaders form and sustain the culture of the organization. Establishing solid leadership and culture is the difference between organizational success and failure. Every organization should have its focus set upon its leadership.

There are important traits of a successful leader. Success in moving an organization forward will depend upon leaders possessing these. Some of the most important traits include:

● HAVE INTEGRITY - This is a highly visible trait that your members can easily detect and judge you by. Be fair, honest, trusting, and upfront. These four small words hold huge value. Leaders with integrity gain instantaneous respect. Begin by treating all members the way you would want to be treated.

● BE CONFIDENT - Carry the attitude that you and your membership can accomplish anything. Confidence is contagious and it will spread through your organization. The snowball effect will further enable your ability to get things done.

● HAVE OPTIMISM - Everyone wants to get behind someone who is positive. It is uplifting to those around you. Do not be a negative Nancy.

● COMMUNICATE - Make everyone aware of your organization’s goals. Establish an open-door policy where members can approach you and talk. Communication needs to be a two-way street. You need feedback from your members as much as they need to hear from you.

● BE DECISIVE - Do not be afraid to make decisions. Once you have the information you need to make a decision, make the decision. Failure to do so will be perceived as a weakness by your members. Be cautious not to make rash decisions. Become informed first.

● BE SUPPORTIVE - Continually offer support to your members. Give them the latitude they need to take risks and be there for them when they need assistance.

● BE A MOTIVATOR - Leadership is motivating members to achieve a common goal. Lead by example and get things moving.

No matter if you are a new leader or have been leading for years, it is never too late to adopt the traits you need to become successful. Leadership in an organization sets the culture by example. Leadership and culture go hand-in-hand. One follows the other. The perception your members have of you, as a leader is hard to turn around but it can be done. Start with integrity and work from there.


For those who serve on a Board of Directors or otherwise provide organizational oversight, it is time to look at your organization’s leaders. Are they effective? Do they possess and practice these traits? When in question, it is time for a conversation.

There are going to be some hurdles, but that is okay! When an organization has been operated for a period of time with one style of leadership and then that changes, there will be resistance. Even when the change is for the good, there will be resistance. Let us face it; some of our members do not adapt to change very well. Be calculated and move at a pace most members can accept.

There are a few members that exist in most organizations that will test both your leadership skills and patience. We can call the worse of these “The Egos” and “The Old Schools”

● THE EGOS - I like the phrase “Park your ego at the door”. We have all experienced members with big egos. They can be very difficult to deal with on a good day. There is nothing you can do or say that they will go along with. It has to be their way. To set yourself up for success, work on developing a station culture that embraces “Park your ego at the door”. This sounds impossible at first, but continually repeat it to everyone. Start every conversation or meeting with it. When you do deal with a big ego, do so in private, removing any audience. This is your best shot at winning them over.


● THE OLD-SCHOOLS - Our organizations are steeped in tradition. The way we have always done it may not be the best way in today’s environment. Everyone has experienced these “old-school-or-else” members. There is no way they are going to accept change. Their mantra is “we have always done it that way." They are typically a long-serving member who has seen it done one way for so long they do not recognize that there is a better way. Perhaps they just do not want to recognize that times have changed. The best way to deal with this group is one-on-one. Do not give them an audience either. Ask them to give change a chance.

When you win, one of these members over, the other members will take notice and you will increase your credibility with them. In all honesty, leading is not always easy. Give these members your best shot. However, you have a vision and a plan to succeed. Do not be derailed on your mission to improve your department.

For members creating roadblocks despite your best efforts, refer to our Toxic Member blog on how to handle them.


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