From Past to Progress: Applying Knowledge to Move Us Forward

What will it take to be a successful leader in the future? A crystal ball would be helpful here, but one option is to look to history for answers. In the 1980s, the 4th edition of The Fire Chief's Handbook by James Casey was a standard reference for fire chiefs and often included as a study guide for promotional tests. The handbook defined the attributes, described below, of a successful organization.

These are just as important today as they were 30 years ago. The biggest difference lies with the tools available to accomplish these, how fast information is changing and how much information is available.

Successful leaders must be comfortable with these attributes and acquire the knowledge, skills and experience to help address the components needed to make their organizations high performing. How this was done in the past was different from today; what we do today is very different from how it will be done in the future.


Leaders must know what the destination is to plot their paths. This holds true with everything from organizational growth to a vehicle-replacement schedule. Both members and citizens need to know the expected outcomes in order to support them. It's rare that a council/board will support anything outside a forecasted expenditure.

The big difference with planning is that we can no longer plan five to ten years out. Things are changing too fast and it's too hard to predict that far out. We need to determine our department's strategic goals and set short-term objectives and action items.


The instability of the economy created a new normal in all aspects of our profession, and justification for funding has become increasingly difficult. The public is quick to scrutinize all aspects of public-safety spending, and because of the severity of previous years' cuts, other departments are competing with the fire department for funding to restore lost programs.

This means that clear justification for any expense must be made. Public scrutiny isn't going away, so to prepare for the future, leaders must have systems in place to provide the data that supports their budgets.


Leaders must be able to present their plans and justifications in a way that is clearly understood, logical and factual. This usually requires multiple mediums and represents one of the biggest changes from past approaches.

Ever-increasing changes in science, technology and law provide new guidelines and venues for communication and the savvy leader will be familiar with all of the latest trends. Social media and the public's access to instant information force leaders to be prepared to discuss and defend their agency.

Leaders should properly represent the highest standards through speech and written word. Often, the most important words are the ones not spoken. This political acumen is essential in maintaining relationships—both internal and external to the department.


A subset of communication, motivation deserves its own listing. Ideally, a leader will rally support for the cause and use momentum to move the project. In both project funding and project tasks, the overall success of a plan is proportional to stakeholder buy-in. I must point out that justification often serves as the motivation for many people, especially elected officials.

Our departments serve very diverse communities and this diversification will continue. Leaders need to be skillful in customizing and personalizing their messages to the audiences they're trying to motivate.


Once a plan is created, justified, funded and communicated (and support gained), project management is next. As a leader, you typically coordinate resources for others; while there are many tools to help with this, the timeless advice from Chief Alan Brunacini is applicable:

  • Tell them what you want them to do.
  • Teach them how to do it.
  • Give them the tools they need to do it.
  • Then get out of their way.

As the workforce continues to diversify, leaders must adapt their approaches to include all groups. They also must consider the presence of multiple generations within the ranks and how their differences can be impact a team's productivity and effectiveness. Leaders must recognize these differences and seek ways to use them in a productive manner.

Revising and Adapting

The last step is one of the hardest for fire service professionals: revising and adapting. Our natural instincts make it difficult to modify something that's currently working, so change is difficult.

Everyone's familiar with the fire service phrase, "200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress." This statement represents a true weakness in our profession.

Technology is a great example of beneficial change. Computers, in both the station and the field, have improved our service and administrative reach.

One of the best methods of revision comes from data; it provides the ability to establish a baseline and monitor results. Then can change be justified and continuous improvement found.

Fire service leaders should be proud followers of tradition but also embrace change.

The IAFC has recently identified Five Wicked Problems that fire service leaders face:

  • Cost efficiency
  • Data
  • Deployment and staffing
  • Culture
  • Political acumen

If the collective fire service leadership has any hope of solving these issues, then Casey's points still apply. Considering each of the Five Wicked Problems and overlaying Casey's attributes of a successful organization, they can all be used in each of the problem areas. Clearly, some answers can be found in the past.

Leading in the future will take a coordinated shift in fire service culture regarding change. Combining past lessons with adaptive and transformational leadership will create a legacy of success for generations to come.

As we prepare for the future, we need to be aware of and address the Wicked Problems and how they impact our organization. So I'll leave you with the following consideration: if history always repeats itself, we'd better start writing better history.

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