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Leadership Development: An Obligation

This in-depth article compiles research and recommendations from experts in the arena of leadership development.

Marcus Lemonis, a CEO featured on CNBC’s The Profit, has turned struggling businesses into successes. A protégé of Lee Iacocca, Lemonis is known for his “3-P” philosophy for success: people, process and product. The fire and emergency service can use it as a template for developing future leaders.


In a Business Insider interview, Lemonis said, “My greatest takeaway is how important or unimportant people can be—how effective or how destructive they can be if they’re not the right people.”

Some say just treat everyone the same—good in theory but unrealistic in practice. People should be treated fairly, but not everyone’s the same. Developing leaders requires recognizing everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. That ability includes accepting different cultures, lifestyles, genders and generations. That’s a lot to expect.

Leaders don’t necessarily have rank; problems may be best solved by those doing the job. Uncountable surveys show that employees’ needs often differ from what employers believe. It’s easy to forget basic workplace needs when negotiating a contract. The needs prioritized for benefits that affect the lives of employee’s family differ from the expectations in the daily work environment. No one should have to negotiate for a professional workplace.

There are conflicting philosophies in how generational differences impact the workplace. In Retiring the Generation Gap, Jennifer Deal notes that when you hold the stereotypes up to the light, they don’t cast much of a shadow. The most striking result of the research, Deal says, is how similar the generations are in the values that matter most, with family topping the list.

  • Everyone wants respect – In the study, older individuals talked about respect in terms of “giving my opinions the weight I believe they deserve,” while younger respondents characterized respect as “listen to me, pay attention to what I have to say.
  • Leaders must be trustworthy – The generations don’t have notably different expectations of their leaders. Above all else, people of all generations want leaders they can trust.
  • Nobody likes change – The stereotype says older people resist change while younger people embrace it. This doesn’t stand up under research; people from all generations are uncomfortable with change. Resistance has nothing to do with age; it has to do with how much you stand to gain or lose as a result of the change.
  • Loyalty depends on context – It’s said that younger workers are not as loyal to their organizations as older workers are. But research shows, for example, that the time a worker puts in each day has more to do with his or her level in the organization than with age. The higher the level, the more hours worked.
  • Everyone wants to learn – Learning and development were among the issues brought up most frequently by all people. Everyone wants to learn and to ensure they have the training to do their job well.
  • Everyone likes feedback – According to the research, everyone wants to know how they’re doing and to learn how they can do better.

Human resources expert Susan Heathfield says feedback must have impact. Effective feedback is specific, not general. The best feedback is sincerely and honestly provided to help. It describes actions or behavior that the individual can do something about.

Effective, successful feedback involves what or how something was done, not why.

The fire service has a difficult, but good, problem: too many excellent people for too few positions. But after promotions, people do want to know, why not me? It’s tempting to put a positive spin on things, to tell people their hard work is recognized, to keep trying, keep going to school, that their time will come.

Now’s the opportunity to provide feedback that has impact. Be honest, direct, and give guidance in how to improve. It’s complicated; expectations in the firehouse changes on the emergency scene but no one can improve without guidance. Efforts to make someone feel good when they’re looking for answers ends in their frustration and anger while you lose credibility.


Sustained leadership development is a process, says Stephen Fairly, leadership consultant and international speaker. “It must be tailored to meet your company's specific needs and goals to be successful.”

Lemonis says, “It’s not about a friendship, it’s a business. This is about putting people in the right place.”

Leadership development begins the moment you’re looking to hire someone. With transparency comes truth.

The Model Hiring Plan for Massachusetts recommends establishing screening criteria based on minimum or special requirements, essential skills, and subject knowledge an individual must possess to do the job. The screening criteria should be based on competencies that generally would/should/could be listed on the resume. Critically review resumes and cover letters to determine if the candidate meets the established screening criteria. Ensure all screeners are reviewing resume for the same skillset.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered a stop to the LAFD recruitment process he called “fatally flawed.” The Los Angeles Times reported thousands of candidates were disqualified because paperwork on their passing a physical fitness exam didn’t arrive within the one-minute (yes, 60 seconds!) filing period. The Times reported more than 20% of 70 recruits hired were relatives of LAFD firefighters. For decades, the agency has struggled to overcome a legacy of discrimination and bias complaints.

Angie Beavin of NBC affiliate KXAN found during an in-depth investigation that the Austin Fire Department had not hired a single firefighter in three years. The department stopped hiring in 2012 because of complaints their testing system discriminated against minorities. The U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to help guide the hiring practices.

While the hiring process is transparent then the promotional process has to be an absolute. The department must have a policy that explains every step of the promotional process. David L. Kurz, Chief of Police in Durham, N.H., writes that the objective is to establish a fair policy, defensible in the event of a challenge. The written policy provides the necessary guidance in fulfilling steps of the selection process, while eliminating perceptions of bias, says Kurz.

Professional development is a blueprint for future leaders, to be effective it needs to be done individually, timely and used. Qualifications shouldn’t be vague with possible loopholes. With a clearly defined job description, the process, often negotiated, defines eligibility, competencies and education.

In interviews, Dr. Denis Onieal, newly appointed deputy U.S. fire administrator, and past superintendent of the National Fire Academy, said that we don’t know what the future will bring. Onieal says education is a part of transitioning the fire service from a job to a profession. There’s always debate about experience vs. education. Future leaders must recognize and understand the differences between training in strategy and tactics and education in human resources, finances, and the ability to communicate effectively

The National Fire Academy offers educational opportunities in all areas culminating in the Executive Fire Officer Program. EFO certification requires a bachelor’s degree to even be considered. The NFA has worked to establish the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education network. Its goal: to prepare well-trained and academically educated fire and emergency service professionals. NFPA 1021: Standard For Fire Officer Professional Qualifications also provides guidance. No matter how your department develops people or process, it needs to be transparent to eliminate suspicion.

There may come a time that, in the best interests of the department, the choice is made to bypass the process or expected job requirements. A popular decision at the time, recognize the loss of credibility. That decision creates a “why should I” culture when looking to inspire future leaders. Without transparency, trust is often lost.


Lemonis carefully examines what's being sold and key marketing characteristics. Departments hiring or promoting are doing the very same. Individuals, responsible for their own future, must know the key marketing characteristics the department is looking for.

Ian Linton, of Demand Media, believes that product leadership doesn’t depend on a single individual; it takes commitment from the whole company. Your senior management team must set a vision of product leadership, explain the role of departments in achieving leadership and commit resources to training. The fire service refers to this as succession planning.

Lee Iacocca has developed a leadership scorecard, easily adapted by the fire service. He encourages its use and his 9 C’s of leadership. Here’s USA Today’s edited version:

  • Curiosity – Listen to people outside the "Yes, sir" crowd. Read voraciously.
  • Creative – Go out on a limb. Leadership is all about managing change.
  • Communicate – A simple one. You should be talking to everybody, even your enemies.
  • Character – Having the guts to do the right thing. If you don't make it on character, the rest won't amount to much.
  • Courage – Courage in the 21st century doesn't mean posturing and bravado. Courage is a commitment to sit down at the negotiation table and talk. If you're a politician, courage means taking a position even when you know it will cost you votes.
  • Conviction – Fire in your belly. You've got to really want to get something done.
  • Charisma – The ability to inspire. People follow a leader because they trust him or her.
  • Competent – Surround yourself with people who know what they're doing. Be a problem solver.
  • Common sense – Your ability to reason.

Iacocca adds that the biggest C is crisis. Leadership is forged in times of crisis. It's easy to send others off to war when you've never seen a battlefield yourself.

Finally, Walter Bennis, widely regarded for his work in leadership studies, states, “Growing other leaders from the ranks isn’t just the duty of the leader, it’s an obligation.”

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