2 2019

By Kathy Clay

Most of us can recall a bad leader or two in the course of our careers. Identifying traits of a less-than-perfect leader is easy: doesn’t listen/hear well, lack of integrity, asks others to do tasks that leader will not do, comes to meetings and doesn’t show up – even when present, constantly checks a cell phone, drops the ball on projects, does not follow up, never gives a positive shout-out when tasks are done well.

The examples seem endless of bad leadership. Yet if it is so easy to identify bad leadership, then why is good leadership so difficult to find?

I began my learning-leadership quest about four years ago when it became apparent that our Chief was on his road to retirement. How to prepare to become the Chief? Study leadership! I latched on to every leadership course, book, and pod cast I could digest. And even though I opted out of applying for the position when it opened, I continue my quest for leadership learning.

When the train-the-trainer “Attributes of Leading” class presented by the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation (NFFF) came up on my email announcements, attending was a no-brainer. I signed up for the December 2018 class and hoped for good weather.


The five-hour drive from Jackson Hole to Boise landed me at the Wildland Firefighter Foundation Headquarters, across the street from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). A giant wildland firefighter guarded the entrance as I entered through the red front door and was guided down a hallway covered with photographs of those who did not make it back home from their wildland fire. This visceral tribute emphasizes why classes like this are so critically important. Enhancing leadership skills helps reduce incidents which helps to reduce firefighter fatalities.

The class was held in a high-ceiling garage-converted into classroom display room. Here, the walls were shoulder to shoulder with crew shirts from across the nation. As wall space filled up, shirts were tacked to ceiling. Racks behind our class area sported the latest Foundation wear. Our instructors prepared for the class while students arrived, one came the long haul from the Sonoma area in California.

Instructors Kevin Conant and Dr. Brian Crandall led our group with the objective of the training, the “why” of what we were to partake in for the day, helping us understand the day’s flow.

The class was created to fill the gap existing in nationally recognized standards for fire service company officers/crew bosses (NFPA 1021) by recognizing the attributes which make an effective leader.

The “Attributes of Leading” training provides a practical platform for small crew training. Focused around a set of six core values:

  • Developing competence,
  • Building grit,
  • Being well,
  • Exercising self-regulation,
  • Demonstrating humility, and
  • Developing trust.

Each topic has an accompanying video which the group watches, reflects upon individually, then shares within the group on actions that can be taken. A work sheet steps participants through a discussion after the video is observed. The video is in a storytelling format and provides positive examples of good leading actions. The kicker to the worksheet is an accountability line that commits the user to revisit the leadership topic at a later date, thereby ensuring that the training be not simply talk, but talk which turns into action, action which starts to make change.

For a small crew in an office/kitchen-based location, this is very excellent training. The videos are high-quality and engaging. Excellent cinematography shows a fire station from Ohio, structural firefighters next to their structural equipment in department or casual gear, and casual-clad fire folks seated in their homes in Montana. The lessons bridge both the structural and wildland fire world, however, the videos do not. And the reliance on structure-department visuals may make getting buy-in from a wildland crew might be difficult. Although these videos are iPhone-friendly, most wildland operations are cell-phone challenged, making field-training challenging if not impossible. This excellent learning tool would be best used before the wildland fire season begins in an office, rather than field setting.

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No one said good leadership is easy and the accountability piece is where the work begins. Doesn’t it always? The six core values are indeed paths to building strong leadership. The story-telling technique is powerful; I still recall stories from the videos we watched that training day. The accountability piece is where the rubber meets the road. Leaders who hope to bring those up around them will be tasked to ensure follow-up on these discussions is turned into action and accountability.

The temptation to watch all of the six core-value videos is real. Success will be difficult with this approach. Although NFFF or the class guidelines do not provide direction on how to logistically conduct this training, the class might best be conducted in small bites. Leaders must have the discipline to follow the process and maintain follow-through and accountability with their crews. Consider a plan to watch one video with one crew every two months. Follow-up with actions on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

“Attributes of Leading” is an excellent tool and will produce positive change when used correctly. As you, a leader, consider implementing this tool, your leadership will be challenged. You will be tasked with the accountability of the process. From one leader to the other, start out small and slow and commit to your crews on the most very important accountability piece of this leadership training.

For more information, see Article on “Attributes of Leading”: https://www.firehouse.com/leadership/news/20995433/nfff-attributes-of-leading-pilot-program-focuses-on-leader-actions.

NFFF/Everyone Goes Home – Training Site: “Attributes of Leading”: https://www.everyonegoeshome.com/training/attributes-of-leading/

A short video sample of the training can be found, with required registration, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCyq_Dtojgs.