Barn Boss Leadership: The Dirty Secrets of Leading

By Benjamin Martin and Brian Ward
The fire service holds no place for someone who doesn’t know their job, and this is only magnified when someone has a leadership role. (Wayne Barrall photo)

The fire service has an incredibly rich history of training men and women. Engine company work, special service companies, specialized training such as technical rescue and hazardous materials, just to name a few—there is no shortage for the need to train to learn new skills and maintain proficiency in old ones. This training serves as both the lifeblood of our organizations as well as a historian—connecting today’s firefighters with the lessons of those who came before us and as a means to pass the knowledge on to those who are still to come.

Look at any organization, whether in the firehouse, fireground, or call for service, and you’ll find leaders. Whether formal or informal, it’s obvious to see which men and women feel strongly compelled to ensure the legacy of the fire service’s mission. This job demands technical proficiency, and it does not hesitate to punish complacency. As such, we all have a strong drive and want for training in fundamental fireground skills--i.e., hoseline deployment and advancement, forcible entry, ground ladders, etc. These are commonly known as hard skills or “getting your hands dirty” skills.

The fire service holds no place for someone who doesn’t know their job, and this is only magnified when someone has a leadership role. To lead our men and women, our departments create promotional processes to seek out those among us who are the most technically competent individuals. These individuals must be capable of motivation and critical decision making and must meet our highest expectation—know your job.

Throughout our careers, we spend countless hours preparing for operating efficiency in the hopes of becoming the go-to on the fireground and firehouse. Who wouldn’t want to work for the leader who lives up to this standard? Firefighters who are into this job and seek out hands-on-training and classroom sessions to make them better on the fireground are also the same ones we long to lead us. But leadership classes, also known as soft skills, aren’t typically fun or sexy, so we don’t flock to them.

For example, say you can choose to attend only one of the following—“Hands-on Top-Secret Forcible Entry Tips and Techniques” or “How to Coach and Counsel Difficult Employees.” Which one are you most likely to sign up for?

We’ll wait the two seconds it will take for you to arrive at the same choice that probably the other 99% of people polled would give: Forcing doors it is. I believe we can all agree that some individuals just get it and have natural leadership instincts and skills. But for the rest of us, we have to learn how to have a difficult conversation; document a performance issue; and learn to motivate, inspire, engage, and communicate effectively. You would be surprised at how unreasonable otherwise smart people can become when faced with the challenges of leadership, especially when dealing with difficult people. This only gets worse when the disagreement is over something important to the leader, such as the value of training or aspiring to a higher expectation.

Many departments are getting it right and creating a structure to improve the leadership abilities of their members. This structure is designed to prevent leaders from engaging in an assortment of problems unprepared, such as coaching and counseling a toxic employee. Another problem associated with this unpreparedness is the tendency of disengagement or burnout in the leader. Whether it’s having to lead up around a bad boss, engage a difficult team member, or support an unpopular policy, proper engagement of others can be both tricky and exhausting.

Compounding this problem is the reality that when leaders give up, they can surrender caring-- as opposed to their rank. Still armed with all the formal obligations of leadership to their team, yet none of the motivation, they often become negative and at times even actively undermine the organization’s other leaders. Even the best of us are subject to this burnout, combined with a lack of the self-awareness to realize when we are doing this. So, what are the common dirty secrets of leading, and how do we fix them?

Problem # 1: We reap the leaders we take the time to sow

Leadership development in many cases is a reactive state of mind for departments. Congratulations! You’re promoted, and now we choose to start developing you and hope you don’t make too big of a mistake in the interim. For example, once I (Martin) was promoted to lieutenant, I got the chance to sit through a front-line supervisor class on how to write performance appraisals. Because of a class waitlist, I was only able to receive this training four months after the appraisals were due.

At the time, I had a senior-firefighter in the promotional process for lieutenant, and I strongly felt he was owed a merit paper that painted an accurate picture of his great talent and capabilities.  Since then, our agency has taken tremendous steps to advance our officer and leadership development by choosing to recognize many of our informal leaders in the agency and being intentional about providing avenues to prepare them before promotion.

So, what training should you provide or seek access to? Important in answering this question is an organization’s ability to determine what is plaguing an organization and what threats lay in the future if they choose to disseminate the information proactively. This concept does not mean develop an overwhelming number of formal classes and checkboxes. However, it could be the development of a mentoring, officer development, or individual leadership program. Don’t forget, one-on-one sessions in an informal manner are some of the best “training” opportunities that exist and often occur at no expense to the organization or individual.  

Problem # 2: Great leaders care … a lot (and this can hurt us at times)

Most good leaders have a strong sense of fairness and want to do what is right. When issues fall foul on this radar and something seems unfair (especially when the action is absent an explanation), it’s easy for even the most engaged leaders to have their buy-in challenged.  Unfortunately, compounding this issue is that we typically lack the self-awareness to know that we have gotten off the right path—it usually takes a great friend or mentor to do it for us. It’s no secret that the fire service needs to spend more time breeding mentors and less time creating complainers.

The ability to communicate effectively is often a learned trait that requires practice. As such, organizations should strive to create responsibilities prior to the promotion day, allowing them to build experience. We do this when training for hard skills, such as riding in the front seat. But when it comes to having an opportunity to improve on soft skills, leaders often fail to communicate effectively or they fall into the category of “It made perfect sense to me when I said it.”

The other component to communicating effectively is learning how to interact with your team.  The fancy word for this is emotional intelligence. We must prepare our leaders for how to understand and lead people, which includes understanding what motivates, inspires, scares the hell out of them, etc. By altering leadership and communication styles for the specific individual, you can more effectively build relationships and hopefully avoid interpersonal conflicts altogether. Your firehouse team will also learn these traits by observing your actions. Modeling is extremely important in today’s fire service, as our new hires often lack the life experience that teaches this.

Problem # 3: Leaders think humility and owning mistakes cause them to lose credibility

There is no such thing as a perfect leader; we all have our vices and weaknesses. Humans are messy and filled with personal and professional problems. As such, it’s nearly impossible for leaders to have all the answers while also simultaneously knowing everything about this job. So, mistakes happen--whether in a difficult conversation or on the fireground. When leaders get caught up in thinking they have to be perfect, they can draw a line, believing it prevents them from making mistakes. This line can start to alienate influencers from their teams if we do not recognize it is occurring. As an example, you’ll know this is happening when teammates get yelled at for asking questions, especially the dreaded “Why?” It also occurs when leaders stop participating in the training they create for others. I could not encourage you enough to challenge yourself and your team with an “I’ll go first” mindset and learn to laugh at yourself if you make a mistake. Leaders must learn to lavish feedback and, through humility, create an environment where people feel safe to provide it to them. Otherwise, you can continue to enjoy the reputation you think you have while secretly others loath the pompous jerk some become.

There are several solutions to combat this situation and still have credibility. First, if you know that you could have made a not great decision or performed inadequately, own it. Do not pass it down to a lower-ranking individual or defer it laterally. Second, when difficult questions are asked, provide a truthful answer even if that means you really do not know the answer; however, be willing to locate the answer. Third, ask for feedback from all levels. If people do not feel they can be honest with you directly, have a senior member act as a go between until they see you are trying to make improvements and build trust in you.

Leadership Is Difficult

Leadership is difficult, period. However, it can become much easier if we start preparing the troops before they are promoted formal (classroom) and informally (at the station). The troops will also be more likely to continue the best practices they observed over their time as an up-and-comer. The greatest benefit is that many times you can only influence those close to your leadership, but as your troops/mentees receive promotions, this influence factor increases exponentially as they gain their own firehouses and troops. Never stop caring, so that your troops never stop bringing you their problems. Learn what makes your troops tick and allow open communication between each of you. And, sometimes the hardest of all actions is being willing to say you don’t know or admit a mistake. Mistakes are experiences and battle scars; learn from them, pass the information on to the next generation, and never give up leading for the right reasons.


Benjamin Martin is a lieutenant with the Henrico County (VA) Division of Fire, assigned to the training section. He has more than 15 years in public safety and speaks throughout the country on leadership. He has worked extensively with the Virginia Fire Officer Academy and is a founding member of the Metro Richmond Public Safety Academy. He provides coaching for behavioral-based interviews and promotional assessment centers. He is the owner and operator of the leadership training featured at He has a master’s in public administration and a bachelor’s in fire science.

Brian Ward is division leader: fire protection and emergency operations for Georgia Pacific. He is the author of Barn Boss Leadership and Training Officer’s Desk Reference. He has a master’s degree in organizational leadership with a bachelor’s in fire safety technology engineering. He is a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, Georgia Smoke Diver #741, the founder of, and an FDIC International instructor.