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When Leadership Requires a Subtle Approach

Many years ago, while serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, our respite at Naval Station Norfolk was interrupted by hurricane Grace. We were ordered to sea to prevent damage to the ship while moored.

Somewhere off the coast of North Carolina, we encountered high winds and heavy seas that pitched the 95,000-ton carrier like a child’s toy in the bath. At one point, our commanding officer, Captain William V. Cross II, came over the ship’s public-address system and calmly announced his tongue-in-cheek intentions to go after the storm with “missiles and guns.” While suggesting to attack a hurricane with weapons systems may seem odd to some, Captain Cross’s leadership traits never altered, whether in the North Atlantic riding out a hurricane or in the Persian Gulf protecting our national interests.

When I think of my time in the Navy and how it helped to shape the man I am today, I often think of Captain Cross and the indelible mark he left on the young man I once was. The leadership skills he exhibited are what I think about when I wonder if the course of my career is true.

Leadership is exhibited not only in times of peril and action, but also in the more mundane events we encounter. Yet, as fire-suppression activities decline nationwide, fire officers are garnering fewer and fewer opportunities to hone the leadership skills the leading fire service books tout, leaving many trying to use those skills in an environment that perhaps requires a subtler approach.

The handful of times I had the chance to speak with my commanding officer have stuck with me more than 20 years later. There are many reasons for this, but the one that sticks out in my mind was his penchant to get to know, however briefly, the person he was speaking with; he was trying to understand the other person’s personality. Understanding those traits enabled him to tailor his leadership style to whoever he was speaking to—not an easy task considering more than 2,500 men formed the ship’s company. (During my time in the Navy, women were not yet permitted to serve on combat vessels.)


The National Fire Academy’s Effective Leadership Skills for Fire and EMS Organizations defines leadership style as “the approach a potential leader takes in seeking to influence the actions of potential followers.”

The particular style a fire officer adopts can have a tremendous impact on the successes or failures he or she experiences: too harsh a style will be seen just as negatively as one that is too gentle.

Influencing followers on the fireground is fairly easy since everyone’s motivation is rather high. The art of being a leader comes from influencing followers when the stakes aren’t as high or when the task is one the followers wish not to do. Of course, any officer can simply point to his or her collar devices as reason enough for a subordinate to follow; however, if you, as an officer, need to mention your rank in order for subordinates to follow, you’ve lost a lot more than just your ability to lead.


Fire officers must try to understand the personalities of those under their command—a task that’s certainly easier at the company level than staff level, but one that with a little practice and training can be done in a few minutes’ time.

By having a cursory understanding of your own personality and that of your staff members, you can mold your leadership style to the individual rather than treating everyone the same.

Most members of fire and EMS are Type-A personalities, meaning we’re results-driven, we demand much of ourselves and we’re self-disciplined. But not everyone is a Type A and without an understanding others’ personalities as well as your own, you’ll be challenged with completing even the most commonplace tasks.

There are eight types of personality, each with its own subtle nuance, characteristic, semblance, strength and weakness combining to make us who we are. But while we’re each one main type, we also have pieces of the other seven in us, creating a rich dichotomy of traits that makes up who we are. To be successful leaders, we need to capitalize on the strengths of each diverse type while minimizing the impact of their weaknesses.


Power is the ability to influence others’ behaviors and attitudes. An essential leadership skill is not only the appropriate use of power but also the amount of power being exerted. There are certain obligations to the use of power: sensitivity, preference for win-win situations and effective interpersonal skills. There are five types of power available to the leader:

  • Legitimate power is based on the internalized values of the employee that dictate that the leader (supervisor) has a “right” to influence people and activities.
  • Reward power is based on the number of positive rewards subordinates perceive a leader is able to offer.
  • Coercive power is based on the perceived notion that discipline will follow if one does not comply with the supervisors aims and goals.
  • Expert power results from a supervisor having recognized expertise or knowledge in an area he or she wants to influence.
  • Referent power is based on the identification of subordinates with the supervisor and what he or she represents.

As a supervisor it is inherent that we understand the power we wield over members and the personality traits they bring to the table. Too much power coupled with too little understanding of the different types of personalities will create gaps in our abilities to serve, supervise and lead.

One of the worst mistakes a supervisor can make is assuming that their rank is commensurate with their ability to lead; rank and leadership are not mutually exclusive but nor are the same thing. Rank is defined by our ability to score well on an exam, leadership is defined by our ability to influence the actions of others to attain a common goal.

Maintaining awareness of these factors can be one positive step toward achieving the flexibility that consistent, effective leadership requires.

Christopher Divver, FO, is a lieutenant for the Clifton (N.J.) Fire Department and an at-large member of the Company Officer Section’s board. He’s been a member of the IAFC since 2012.

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