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Leadership or Commandership

What image in your mind do you have of a leader? It was very clear what leadership looked like when George Washington was leading troops across the Delaware River. He was standing upright leaning into progress with eyes on the objective, one knee up braced for action, but with a sense of calmness. An early image of fire service leadership looks very much the same; recall Currier and Ives prints. All of them have scenes of action, a bent knee, and eyes on the objective, leaning into the task. In every multi company scene there is, a commander, bugle in hand, majestically pointing the way. These images indicate what fire service is very good at, coordination, where others see chaos. That coordination is that what is critical to our safety, the safety of the citizens we serve, and the quick solutions to progressing problems.

Today the image portrayed of fire service leadership is often from television; a chief officer with a white helmet, grey hair, and deep creases of character in his face, with a presence of calm competence. He is usually behind the main characters not part of the action but playing a role we all know the importance of.

We all have personnel examples of what leadership should be or could be. Often it is an example of a person we experienced early in our lives who we respect for one reason or another, through their actions or ability to communicate a clear plan and expectation.

Leadership is a topic that has been explored by many highly educated and experienced people, it is still a mystery and a subject often discussed. That is good, a quality of a good leader is a willingness to learn, a willingness to teach, both are active and require communication to be effective.

Leadership image in the fire service is connected to a person out front leading the way guiding others to necessary objectives.  Much like handling a horse, leading, is being out front active and communicating with the followers close with a hands on approach. Contrary to leading, the fire service uses commanding; supported by training, and good communication, very effectively in the mitigation of emergencies. Commandership illustrated by the trained horse has a rider (commander) who uses voice commands, reins, and a nudge here and there to direct the movement. This cannot happen when the horse is not trained or where the commander does not know the capability of the horse. Don’t confuse commandership with driving, using shouting and whipping; that activity based is on distrust where direction is not precise or predictable, increasing volume can not make direction clearer. Driving in this manner is reserved for the ineffective and frustrated; definitely not effective at an emergency.

Training and communication are important steps in setting ourselves up for effective leadership and commandership. If a fire crew does not train together with their leaders it is impossible to move from leading to commanding. Leading is watching the crews and controlling actions. Commanding is communicating objectives while watching the scene for changing conditions and matching those conditions to predicted outcomes. Commanding requires that training has already occurred so we should know how to attain our objectives. Leading and commanding both require communications. The type of communication used can indicate whether you are leading or commanding.  If you state “E-95 transitional attack side A” you are likely commanding, if you state “E-95 let’s take an 1 3/4 to the front door knock the fire down and then we can go on in“ you are likely leading. Each has its place and is appropriate for personnel’s different experiences and training. Remember if you are leading your attention is on who you lead to complete the objective and if you are commanding it is on the objective and the followers know the expectation. 

Knowing your personnel’s capabilities, strengths and weaknesses can only come from regular training, hands on drilling and regular contact with people. A personal willingness to invest in ourselves and personnel is a trait that people want in their leaders. It is a path from leadership to commandership; where the view is on the safety, mitigation and progress of the incident rather than the tasks at hand. 


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Posted: May 28, 2015,
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