Firehouse Magazine

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Instructor John Dixon

Passionate, Relevant, and Current Knowledge Sharing For Your Department

Exercising Referent Power


Traditionally, anytime a fire officer must “speak to” a firefighter within their command, the communication is characterized as a form of negative discipline. Therefore, I propose an alternative to the “speaking to” and replacing the context towards a more positive perception of “speaking with!” Coaching and counseling are certain forms of progressive discipline which is to achieve a change in undesirable behavior. It can be argued that the root word of discipline is to disciple. Leading or teaching someone towards a favorable outcome in a mutually approved value and belief system. The return on the fire officer's investment for their time and energy in conducting a coaching or counseling exercise will certainly yield an increase in the desired behavior.

An issue that can be found within personnel management is, in fact, the title itself. It has often been said by multiple people in various contexts that “ you manage things and lead people!” In society today, we find ourselves living in a time when words really matter. What if we as leaders were to exemplify our words to mimic our actions? Therein lies the holy grail of leadership, the proverbial eight hundred pound Halligan that exists in every fire service organization which begs the question; why do you have power over me?

“One of the first works on the management of power was The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s masterpiece posthumously published in 1532” (Ward, 2015, p. 129). According to French and Raven (1959), two social psychologists published works describing forms of power. One of the five forms of power they identified is called referent power. This power further defined is when an individual who is the subordinate complies with suggestions for improvement due to an admiration for the superior who holds the given power over them. I would like to improve upon this thought process on power and offer a different perspective; the power that is given is not implied rather it is mutually shared.

“Using power wisely requires not only self-reflection and positive motivation of those you lead, but also understanding the resulting value that comes from these actions” (Sherman & Cohen, 2019, para. 8). When coaching someone, referent power is shared because the individual receiving the coaching is open to the information given by the coach. In this case, it’s a fire officer trying to improve upon a course of action for the future. This requires the action of forecasting behavior. It further requires a dual motivation that value will be tangible and easily noticed by both parties. If this value is not recognized, the next step must be to counsel the subordinate.

The action of counseling moves the pendulum from a shared power, a referent power, to more of legitimate power. An example would be, a form of hazing that occurred in the fire station which must be addressed immediately but the action does not rise to a formal disciplinary procedure. It may be a first-time offense or simply an out of context remark. Either way, this action mandates a change from a “speaking with” to a “speaking to!” It has often been said that leaders will accept what they allow. “When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable; if there are no consequences-that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must set standards” (Willink & Babin, 2015, p. 54).

Although the action of counseling is a form of legitimate power, the self-control and example of the superior officer must model the desired behavior asked of the subordinate. This is the delicate balance of power. The authority is given by the organization to conduct such an exercise but, the personal authority to listen and improve is given by the person receiving the counseling. If the fire officer is demonstrating a duplicitous leadership style, no form of coaching and counseling will prove to be effective.

Recommendations for fire service leaders vary from one guru to the next. The one singular action that reverberates above all others is our example. This is the most powerful leadership tool and certainly, the most widely coveted by followers. Having a positive example to follow makes ethical decision making much easier. This is because desired behavior has already been established and modeled. Even the best leaders around receive coaching from people who are in their inner circles who model behavior the leaders themselves are trying to emulate. Referent power is implied and shared mutually.
Motivation to continue on a specific leadership journey lies within the positive behavior and or outcomes that any individual seeks to achieve. This is where referent power ascends into legitimate power. The example of the leader is legitimized not only by people who may be on the receiving end of coaching/counseling, but the organization as a whole is legitimized by the behaviors of their leaders.

Management in the fire service must not be about people. We can manage the budget, apparatus, and standard operating guidelines. Leadership is a lifestyle learned through years of challenges and failures. These failures were turned into leadership successes through coaching and counseling which were paid forward to future generations of firefighters. This is the leadership continuum. Living the right example taught to us by those who have lived it before us. Their power was legitimized because of the referent power we shared with them.


French, John R.P. and Bertram Raven. Bases of Social Power. Studies in Social Power. Ed. Dorwin Cartwright. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,1959.

             Retrieved from

Sherman, R. O., & Cohn, T. M. (2019). Using leadership power wisely: Learn how to use power in the service of others. American Nurse Today.
             Retrieved from https://link-gale-<br< a="">>

Ward, M. J. (2015). Fire officer: Principles and practice (Enhanced 3rd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2018). Extreme ownership: how U.S. Navy SEALs lead and win. Sydney, N.S.W.: Macmillan.

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Why Professional Credentialing Is Important

It is with great humility and honor to share with you that I have earned the Fire Officer (FO) professional credential from the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Throughout this process I have been asked by many of my peers and fire service friends what this credential actually means. The very next question was how can they can start the process to earn a credential of their own. Allow me to first describe what the Center for Public Safety Excellence is.

What is the Center for Public Safety Excellence?

The Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation. The primary resource for the fire and emergency profession to continuously improve services resulting in a higher quality of life for communities. CPSE has successfully helped public safety agencies around the world streamline and improve the services they provide their communities through its numerous programs and services.

CPSE provides the only accreditation program for fire service organizations in the world. The CPSE offers nationally-recognized designations for fire and emergency services officers. CPSE has over 200 accredited agencies and over 1700 designated officers throughout the world. The process of obtaining a credential is set by the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC). This commission is promulgated by rules and regulations set forth by the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). There is an Internationally accepted model which recognizes professional accomplishments and competence in fire and emergency services. CPSE offers fire and emergency service personnel career guidance and planning via many in-house programs and classes. 
(Click here for CPSE website)

Why Seeking Continuous Improvement is Important

As we progress in the fire service it is vital to perform internal checks and balances. These “gut checks” as I like to call them provide an unbiased outside evaluation of ourselves. Whether we serve as a career, volunteer, combination, paid on call, or what have you; we must pause from time to time and take stock in what and how we are moving forward personally and professionally. This is a prime example of operating outside of our comfort zones because the in-depth application process is reviewed by peers in the fire service with whom we have no connections with and forces us to reflect inward to look outward.

The balance of training and experience which is the holy grail in today’s fire service and highly coveted by all is part of the CPSE mission. Some will opine that simply placing a few letters after our names is not an indication of how salty of a firefighter/fire officer we are but I would challenge that sentiment with this question. “Have you allowed yourself to open up to an unbiased and critical evaluation of your professional pedigree?”

It is easy to continuously operate inside our comfort zones, surround ourselves only with likeminded peers, therefore never offering ourselves up for constructive criticism. This a disservice to those that we have sworn to protect.
I would be lying to all of you if I said that I wasn’t nervous and had second thoughts about submitting my application. Having said that, the process forced me to take an in depth look at my commitment to the fire service along with a ton of questions. Did I have enough education? Did I have enough experience? How will I explain this to the panel of peer reviewers? What if they say I’m not good enough?

In answering these questions, I realized that I was seeking continuous improvement and simply had to learn to itemize it! Think back to all those academy classes, individual self-study courses, countless hours of drills and many hours of reading publications. The college courses we felt would never end all the time questioning if this has any bearing whatsoever in performing our duties. I will tell you that it most certainly does! Everything that we do makes us better. We simply need to pause from time to time and take a personal inventory. This is what I call the process of seeking continuous improvement.

If you have been following me, you will know that I have a personal mission statement. This mission statement drives all of my decisions. It allows me to stay open and transparent with all of you and most importantly myself. If you have a mission statement of your own great! If not, I highly recommend that you start to develop one.
(I’m sensing another blog post on this)

The Process

This is a very brief overview of the application process. I have included the link to the CPSE website which will outline the process in greater detail once you obtain the application. There is no cost to obtain the application. Just go to the site, create a profile, and download the paperwork.

Be prepared to:
Write essays
Describe your position in the fire service such as job title functions
Create a table of organization showing where you fit in
Obtain letters of recommendation
Make copies of National, State, and local certifications
Chronologically list training, formal education, and continuing education
List professional affiliations to other organizations
List community service involvement
Speaking/Teaching engagements in conferences and such

All of this information will help in describing how you will measure up to the commissions core competencies. There are different competencies for each of the credentials. For the Fire Officer (FO) credential there are at least 12 that need to be satisfied. It would also be beneficial to review NFPA 1021 – The Professional Qualifications of Fire Officer. Each of the core competencies will need a signed attestation statement from a superior. So as you can see, this is not a walk in the park and there is a considerable amount of time that you will need to invest to complete this process. It took me about 4 months to complete. I can assure you though, once you complete the process you will have a 30,000-foot view of yourself and will see the path of continuous improvement before you in which self-reflection is a vital component.

In Closing

Again, I would like to thank all of my fire service peers and friends who have supported me throughout this process and encouraged me to fulfill my own personal mission as I strive for excellence. The brotherhood is alive and well!
If obtaining your professional credentials is something you are interested in, please feel free to reach out to me. I would be eager to tell you all about the process and be more than happy to help you complete the application. Please visit the CPSE website and see what credential is right for you. Be proud of who you are and what you have achieved. It’s a matter of personal pride and a sign of your continued dedication to the fire service.

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