Where do you learn your best leadership lessons? Lately, I have been reminded of strong leadership practices by watching episodes of Chicago Fire on Peacock.

A common definition of leadership suggests that strong leaders are focused on guiding and influencing others toward a common vision or goal.

In each of the 12 seasons of Chicago Fire, you’ll find plenty of examples of good and bad leadership. I enjoy the stories and diverse characters on the show. I can also justify my TV watching by noting the many leadership lessons and stories in the various episodes!

Three Leadership Lessons from Chicago Fire

Here are three key components of strong leadership that come through clearly for Firehouse 51:

1.  Teams are only as strong as their leaders

There are plenty of stories and examples of good and bad leadership within the fire department, as portrayed by the show. In each episode, it is clear that the strength of a team at any firehouse is only as strong as its battalion chief. 

Chiefs who serve with an iron fist and an autocratic style and believe they know better than anyone else sow seeds of distrust throughout their firehouses. Nothing good comes from team members who distrust their leaders or each other.

Chief Boden at Firehouse 51 demonstrates a more democratic and transformational leadership style. He inspires his firefighters to serve the community and each other with integrity. His team frequently comes together to support each other in times of personal and professional turmoil and struggle. It is clear that Chief Boden is more focused on the performance of the entire team than his own personal career goals. Plenty of trust and respect exist in Firehouse 51.

Lesson: Leaders who focus on what’s good for the team and the organization as a whole earn the trust and respect of their team members.

2.  Strong leaders protect, motivate, and genuinely care for their teams

Leaders can have high expectations for their team members and still hold them accountable without losing respect. Chief Boden supports each firehouse member, advocates for them, and helps them develop their own leadership skills. He holds them accountable when they exercise poor judgment or don’t follow through on their commitments. As a result, he has earned the trust and respect of the firefighters in his firehouse, even though they don’t always agree with his decisions.

When disagreements arise, trust and respect among team members help the team work through conflict without destroying relationships.

Lesson: Leading a team doesn’t mean everyone needs to always agree. Investing time in getting to know your team, building trust, and talking things through enables a team to work through conflict successfully.

3.  Creating safe environments is key to helping teams thrive

Each member of Firehouse 51 can feel safe to be themselves. They each bring their own stories and reasons for becoming a firefighter. They bring their own values, experiences, quirks, and skills. Their differences make them stronger.  By feeling safe to be themselves, they build strong interpersonal relationships that allow them to trust each other.  When the time comes to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out, they know that their teammates have their backs. Each team member works for a common purposeto make a difference in the lives of the people in their community and to keep everyone safe.

Lesson:  Feeling safephysically and psychologicallyis key to building strong relationships.

Inspiration for Team Discussion Topics

I love finding TV and movie examples that provide good discussion topics for my work with team leaders. Chicago Fire provides many examples that I can use as stories and case studies in my work with teams.

If these lessons resonate with you, try suggesting that the team watch a couple of episodes of Chicago Fire (one of your die-hard fans can suggest which ones would be good examples).

Here are a few questions you might explore relative to the Chicago Fire and/or your own team:

  • How many different leadership styles do you notice among the characters?
  • How do different personality styles influence leadership and team performance?
  • What can cause trust to take a long time to build and yet be destroyed within minutes?
  • How many ways does stress show up, and what is its impact on the team?
  • How does the level of trust and strength of relationships influence each leader’s decisions when fighting a fire?
  • Why do firefighters feel called to their profession? How does having passion and purpose play out in your organization?
  • How do the various characters work through differing viewpoints and perspectives?
  • What style of leadership works best for teams?  Under what kind of leader have you felt like you could thrive? 
  • What characteristics of leadership motivate you to perform your best? What characteristics make you want to simply give up and move on?

Many TV shows and movies lend themselves to leadership lessons. Chicago Fire may have the most lessons I’ve seen in a TV show.

What other TV shows or movies offer great lessons about leadership and teamwork?

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