By Peter M. Leschak
A decade ago I was dispatched as a Division Supervisor to a fire complex in Georgia. As I walked into a bustling ICP to check in, a deep male voice boomed over the hubbub:
“Hey, y’all! There walks a Div Supt. I can spot ‘em a mile away.”
He turned out to be an Ops Chief. I didn’t ask how he knew, but next morning eight Division Supervisors attended the morning briefing. Six of us were tallish white males with gray or graying hair. Coincidence or profile? (Three of us were wearing Yellowstone Fires 1988 T-shirts, and that was just spooky.)
I was assigned a DIVS/trainee—a smallish young woman I’ll call Amanda. My first considered (as opposed to knee-jerk) impression was positive. She was highly experienced with a professional demeanor, and after a transitional shift with the outgoing DIVS, I stepped back and turned over routine operation of the Division to her. I also asked to see her Position Task Book. She dug it out and I realized I was to be her 10th evaluator. As I paged through the fattened booklet I noted her facial expression from the corner of my eye. It seemed a blend of embarrassment and anger. Except for a single item, every task had been initialed multiple times. I had an inkling why that might be, and I took a risk. I held up the book and said, “Short female, right?”
“Damn straight!” she replied.
My DIVS/trainee experience was different from Amanda’s. I was signed off halfway through my second training assignment. Was I deserving? Well, that was literally for others to judge, but I’ve little doubt that how I looked and how I sounded exerted significant influence.
I won’t be coy: I have strong command presence. A concise definition of the phrase is in the article Managing the Meaning of Leadership by Jennifer Ziegler and Michael DeGrosky: “An overt demonstration of individual vigor, dynamism, and forcefulness towards subordinates in order to be granted legitimate authority.” In our society, if you are a tall white male with a resonant voice, you are almost automatically given the benefit of the doubt. Amanda apparently was not. Unfair, but all too common.
Our cultural biases are deeply ingrained, tangled up with when and where we were born; with our upbringing, education, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and political leanings. These factors can be sensitive topics, and our biases (some of which may be opaque to us) play into command presence. A fraught subject, because at root it’s how we consciously or unconsciously display ourselves, how we either inspire confidence or don’t, and some of the relevant traits (gender, skin color, height) are beyond our control. Whenever I help to deliver an L-180, L-280, or related leadership material, I understand that command presence must be approached with caution. There is, however, a straight path into the concept.
In Leading in the Wildland Fire Service (the “Yellow Book”) we read, “Character is the foundation of command presence.” That means the character of both leaders and followers. In this context, good character rests on a foundation of courtesy and respect—not just simple “niceness,” but a mindfulness that strives to reserve judgement at first appearances.
For example, let’s say you are newly arrived at an incident and have been directed to tie-in with the ICT3. You are aware that the two people approaching you are the ICT3 and a PIOF, but you don’t know them. One is a fifty-ish male and the other a thirty-ish female. You may make an automatic assumption about who is what, and it may even be correct in that instance, but courtesy and respect demand that you consciously and deliberately admit you don’t know until you’re introduced.
A suggested behavior is to speak first and say, “Hello, my name is ______________ and I need to talk to the IC,” while making intentional eye contact with both individuals, understanding that body language often reveals more than speech. Simple, but effective (and professional). Respect is a concept, but more importantly, a practice. You may readily think of other tactics, and chances are you learned them from your mother and in kindergarten.
Some will say the sum of our cultural biases is so potent that people like Amanda will always be at a disadvantage. Maybe, but I personally believe we’ll eventually transcend these predispositions because of responses I received to an exercise delivered at several Fireline Safety Refreshers a few years ago.
I asked students to “identify and list the traits and behaviors that contribute to an effective command presence.” Here are the most common thoughts: competence, “knows the job”; composed and cool under pressure; dignified; decisive, not “wishy-washy”; good communicator; strong, attention-getting voice; takes charge, takes responsibility; self-confident; “looks the part”; goal-oriented, motivated; not arrogant, doesn’t “lord it over people”; physically fit, tough.
Note that almost everything listed is teachable/learnable. Even “looks the part” (which is important) can be influenced by personal actions such as how you are dressed, groomed, and carry yourself. Command presence can be cultivated and is not solely dependent on conditions beyond our control. Amanda ran the Division in an exemplary manner. At any briefing she delivered I saw her accorded attention and regard. And yes, I was her final evaluator.
All that said, it must be noted that an effective command presence is not an unqualified benefit and can be hazardous. The danger is rooted in that cultural bias and the deference and credibility too often uncritically awarded to authoritative charisma. Because looking the part and playing the part do not grant infallibility, any more than does having a title or a rank.
During my three decades of filling various leadership roles, firefighters almost always did what I asked them to do, even if it turned out to be wrong, because they simply assumed I was right. Ironically—and perilously—this was particularly true if they didn’t know me because their first impression of my command presence was all they had to go on. I made some bad calls, but was lucky—none of the mistakes resulted in severe consequences.
I acutely realized the potential pitfall of command presence while acting as a Helibase Manager in Idaho on a fire in the Payette in the mid-90s. We faced a problem amenable to two potential solutions, Plan A and Plan B (details are irrelevant to this discussion). I favored Plan A.
The three members of my staff in the commo tent not only favored Plan B, but felt that Plan A was outright mistaken. I argued my case civilly but adamantly, displaying “vigor, dynamism, and forcefulness toward subordinates” and I got my way. But Plan A was crap. Fortunately, the only negative effect before we shifted to Plan B was a little wasted time. I apologized to the staff and an alarm bell sounded in my head: Not a big deal that time, but easy to imagine a scenario where undue deference to my command presence could get somebody injured or killed.
Thing is, command presence can no more be easily switched off than it can be easily switched on. The antidote? Back to courtesy and respect. Routinely ask subordinates for input and feedback then actively listen to it. And if everybody in earshot considers you full-of-it, chances are good that’s the case, even if you happen to be a tall white male with a resonant voice.
About the Author
Peter Leschak recently retired as a career wildland firefighter with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. For the past 25 years he’s been a fire instructor in both the wildland and structure realms for various state and federal agencies. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books, including Ghosts of the Fireground, and has produced more than 300 magazine and newspaper articles. Peter’s last blog post for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center “Heroes and Dragon Slayers” was featured this April: https://wildfirelessons.blog/2021/04/13/heroes-and-dragon-slayers/.
Photos by Kari Greer
For more insights on “Command Presence” check out this podcast featuring Fire Operations Specialist Monica Morrison. “I remember on my first job running the squad,” Monica recalls, “I had people tell me that I wasn’t big enough or strong enough, and I obviously have this little tiny voice—so maybe my voice isn’t going to be loud enough to even have a Command Presence.” In this August 2020 podcast conversation, today’s wildland fire leader discusses her perceptions on Command Presence and how it actually encompasses trust far more than a booming voice.