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  • Benjamin Martin

The Abuse of Power

Power. Far too often people overestimate what they could do if only they had rank or position in their department. They often simultaneously underestimate what they could already be doing without it. Power is a gift we are given by either the formal recognition from an organization, the informal recognition of our peers, or at times from both. Power often has a negative connotation, perhaps because we often see leaders using it for selfish reasons. We've all seen a boss or two throw their weight around hiding behind their badge. This is usually accompanied by the likes of "because I said so".

But when leaders exercise power appropriately, it can push teams and organizations to new highs. The fire service wins when leaders exercise power that align with their organization's mission and values--put citizens first, focus on your team, and reserve the least for your self. So what does that look like?

The Wins and Losses of Power

Win: When a leader chooses to use power to create an opportunity for someone to step up and step through a new door in the organization. Example: When I served as the lieutenant of training I created a cadre of incumbent adjunct instructors I considered to be both subject matter experts and role models of the organization's values and expectations. It was my privilege for these folks to help us execute an incredible 7.5-month academy for new hires. It was always my hope that they would fall in love with the opportunity and consider applying for the full-time position. Some did, some did not. It's the leader's job to create and help people realize opportunities for themselves.

Loss: When a leader is self-serving and exists for themselves their self-serving agenda is usually pretty obvious to everyone but one person--the leader him or herself. Example: When a leader takes credit for the work or idea of another member of his or her team. When a leader chooses to leverage the efforts of his team to make him or herself look good it corrupts the culture including the hierarchy, roles and responsibilities, and morale.

Win: When a leader uses their position to gain and share more information, perspective, and the why behind organizational decisions to help their team get on board faster in accomplishing what's been asked. Example: Take the time to share what you hear during officer meetings, training, and represent the organization well while you are communicating. Just because you disagree with what you hear doesn't mean you have to kill it in front of your troops.

"Knowledge is power when it is shared freely; when it is lorded and hoarded it is divisive and destructive". -Aaron Fields

Loss: The leader sits on any information given to them, thinking that knowledge is power if it isn't shared. Example: The leader is given information that the team needs to know to carry out the mission, or provided feedback about their performance. Rather than share, they selfishly choose what they pass on the team, thereby limiting their ability to be creative and problem solve. This keeps the leader in charge and lessens the risk that he won't know it all, or be outdone. The leader is quick to take and keep when credit is given.

Win: When a leader uses their power to go to bat for their people and celebrate their accomplishments to those above them. Example: Whenever you receive a compliment for the work getting done make sure your bosses know the names and efforts of the guys getting it done with you. The job of the leader is to train their teams to perform. When it goes well, the leader should take less than their share of credit. When it goes marginally or even poorly, the same leader should take on more than their actual share for the blame.

Remember, you never need rank to be a leader. As a leader your true power comes from how you walk throughout your organization--not your talk. In this way, power comes from the demonstration of your values and behavior--true power comes from the example you set.

Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at

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