TACtical Leadership

A leader is someone who motivates and influences others toward a common vision or goal. (Photo by Brian Ward.)
A leader is someone who motivates and influences others toward a common vision or goal. (Photo by Brian Ward.)

In this article, we will examine the power of informal influence through character-based leadership, which is the foundation of TACTical leadership. The emphasis of TACTical leadership is to use “tact” as a key principle to leading others. Many people have confused the idea of leadership with the idea of requiring rank to lead, which is simply not true! A leader is someone who motivates and influences others toward a common vision or goal. Some of the most influential people in the fire service don’t wear a trumpet and are able to motivate and influence others such as our senior firefighters and engineers. These people are called informal leaders because of their ability to influence others without the formality of rank. We believe exhibiting this style of leadership as an informal leader will prepare you for the formal role. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have been mentored by formal leaders with this highly successful style of leadership understand why it works so well. We need a culture of character-based leadership at all levels to have a truly successful fire service, and it starts with using tact! This article will discuss key attributes of character-based leadership for the formal and informal leaders in the fire service.

Adapt and Develop

TACTical leadership is a style of character-based leadership that shows you how to influence others and deliver your message with tact. Tact is defined as having a keen sense of what to do or say to avoid giving offense or having the skill in dealing with difficult and delicate situations. Exhibiting tact does not mean we shy away from tough or difficult situations; however, we should approach them after considering the situation and the individuals involved. The characteristics of the situation and the individuals will change every time, which requires you as the leader to adapt and develop the best possible solution.

For example, consider two individuals who are preparing for a promotional exam. One individual has been preparing for months just for the opportunity and some personal event occurs that takes his time and focus away from the promotional exam. The other individual has never cracked a book, asked for assistance, or shown interest in training past the minimum expectation. Now, it is two weeks away from the promotional exam, and both ask for help. Your approach to this situation will set a precedence for your reputation as a leader (informal or formal).

It would be extremely easy to walk away from the unmotivated individual and not assist. However, by walking away, are we not going against everything we stand for? It is our job as leaders to help both individuals; however, it will be with different methods of tact. The first individual will be easy to support, as we determine collectively what is needed and then execute the task. This first individual will be grateful for the assistance and surely pay it forward. The second individual will require a slightly different approach. This is our chance to mold and influence this individual by showing him how to pay it forward. The response should start with us communicating that the requested assistance will be provided.

However, here are the expectations that must be met. If the individual is willing to meet the expectations of our discussion, then we must be willing to go the extra mile for him. The end goal is for him to see what was provided to him in the hopes that he starts to model his life in that manner.

One of the vital keys of this exchange is the ability of a great leader to communicate. Many people listen to respond, where a leader listens to understand. As a leader, ensure there is constant feedback between the sender and receiver with the use of tact. This feedback ensures both individuals understood the intent of the message.

As the two individuals described above move throughout their careers, the hope is for both to consider the character traits of their leaders to determine what worked and what did not work. Understanding that no leader is perfect, there is always knowledge and skill sets on which we can improve. The key is to understand the differences in people and situations and to use tact to provide a solution. Throughout our careers, there will be several situations where we are the spectator; we should study the situation, internalize the situation, and see how others handle the situation.

Key Characteristics

Other key characteristics of leaders using TACTical leadership include the following:

Leaders exhibit humility. Leaders understand that their actions speak louder than words. A good leader will not brag of his own accomplishments. He may brag on others but he does not boast. A great quote by C.S. Lewis that perfectly summarizes humility is, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” This quote tells us that as leaders we need to put others first and ourselves second.

Leaders make others better. True leaders want to see others succeed over their own success. They have the mentality of putting the team before themselves and wanting nothing more than to see the team’s success over their own. Some leaders believe that knowledge is power, and the more knowledge they can retain the better they are. This couldn’t be further from the truth! True power comes from mentoring and sharing knowledge. There is no better way to leave a legacy than to develop those around you to be better than yourself.

Leaders have a positive attitude. Leaders can find the positive in any situation, whether good or bad. They take every bad situation and turn it in to a learning experience and make themselves better because of it. Leaders understand that attitudes are contagious, both good and bad. People can have the skills, the knowledge, and a good work ethic, but if they have a bad attitude then it all counts for nothing! Most leaders will take someone with little skill and a great attitude rather than someone with a lot of skill and a negative attitude.

Leaders have integrity. Leaders do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. What do you do when no one is looking? This is a character trait that is not something you develop overnight but rather something you exhibit over time through consistently making the ethical decisions, both around the station and on the scene.

Leaders are servants. We challenge you to find a great leader who is not also involved in multiple other aspects in the fire service, whether serving on a committee, teaching training in the surrounding area, or being involved in the community. A leader understands the importance of giving back to an organization that helps others become better. One of the most difficult parts of formal leadership is the requirement for you to work harder for the people around you for them to succeed. These leaders’ greatest aspiration is to leave everything they do better than they found it!

What’s Your Legacy?

We would like to leave you with one question as an influential leader choosing to lead people through the use of TACTical leadership: What will be your legacy? Every action and every decision we make as leaders are being evaluated by many eyes. People are looking for an inspiration and for someone to give them direction. Be the individual in your department, regardless of rank or seniority, to be an inspiration and provide direction. You are building your legacy—whether you realize it or not. Ask yourself, what will people say about me after I retire? Will they be happy that I’m gone or will I be missed? Will people tell positive stories about me around the kitchen table or negative ones because of how I handled career situations? Practice TACTical leadership and be someone worth being, and your legacy will fall into place!


Tommy Goran is a fire engineer with the Columbia (MO) Fire Department and a rescue specialist serving on Missouri Task Force 1. He is the founder of Flashover Leadership, a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, and an advocate for Safety Net of Missouri.


Brian Ward is division leader of fire protection and emergency operations for Georgia Pacific (GA). He is a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, is Georgia Smoke Diver #741, and is the founder of www.BarnBossLeadership.com. Ward is the author of Barn Boss Leadership: Make the Difference and Training Officer’s Desk Reference.

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