Wm. voorhies' recommended reading for the fire service

Free Advice If You Own The Book: Always read with a highlighter. Yellow will fade in a year so use orange, green, or some other color. Highlight the passages that strike you. Make notes in the margins. Dog-ear the pages you like. It will make that book a valuable resource for years to come.


Books on leadership are not hard to find. Good books on leadership are very hard to find. And there are plenty I've spent money on that I'm not listing here because they just didn't do it for me.

Endurance by Alfred Lansing

We might as well start with my all-time favorite book. It's the story of the doomed attempt by Sir Ernest Shackleton and over 20 men to cross Antarctica, and the year they spent trying to get back to civilization. It's an incredible tale of survival, intelligence, and determination. Shackleton's ability to keep his men motivated in the most desperate of circumstances has become legend. This story is also a powerful reminder for all of what true adversity looks like. When you think you've got it bad, remember the crew of the Endurance. Even Detroit firefighters don't have it this bad.

It also happens to have the all time best first line of a book: "The order to abandon ship was given at 5 P.M." The book starts with the ship sinking! How awesome is that?

Recommended for all ranks

Leadership Lessons Of The Navy SEALs by Jeff Cannon and Lt. Cmdr. Jon Cannon

Over the last two years I've met three strangers, who in conversation (and without any prompting) told me that they were former Navy SEALs. Now, one of two things must be happening: either these men are claiming to be something they aren't, or there are many more SEALs than I thought there were, and they all want to tell everyone about the formerly secret organization that they were part of. I believe that either of those two scenarios is the result of the general public becoming more aware of special forces.

That's why I was initially very reluctant to read this book. It was actually one of those Amazon recommendations based on some other book I had purchased. I took a shot and bought it, but thought that it would be an empty book trading off the popularity of the Navy SEALs moniker. I couldn't have been more wrong.

More than any of the other leadership books I've detailed on this page, this book is a very clear and concise list of what a leader should do. This book is awesome. Chapter 1 Lesson 6: "Build Your Goal Around A Problem, Not The Other Way Around." Simple and profound when you think about it. And there's plenty more where that came from.

Recommended for Officers

Leadership Secrets of Atilla The Hun by Wess Roberts

The first thing a brand new firefighter needs to realize is that the public can't recognize their newness. The public sees you as an expert; a jake like the rest of us who is going to solve their problem. The corollary realization is for you, the new firefighter, to realize that even though you "don't know anything," you ARE a leader. You might not feel like one, but the public will look to you to lead regardless. And as soon as someone is around with a day less experience than you, that person will be looking to you to lead them.

I say all that to point out that "leadership" books aren't just for the officers. In the fire service, everyone is expected to be a leader at times. (Everyone is expected to follow at times, as well.) This book uses a fictionalized account of Attila's military campaigns to illustrate leadership principles. It's pretty straightforward, but you have to put a little effort into drawing the lessons out. If you take the time, you'll find that the principles are on point.

And as the cover states, there are a half million copies in print. That means that just about every used book store has a copy waiting for you.

Recommended for all ranks (Read it a few times throughout your career and see how your perception of the lessons changes.)

Into The Unknown: Leadership Lessons from Lewis and Clark's Daring Westward Expedition by Jack Uldrich

This one was really a surprise. I found it in the used book store sandwiched between two books on how to beat the stock market. Of course, the title jumped out at me. (And just to be clear, I don't only read "leadership" books, but the last two books I read before this one were true fire service history books that just happened to suck so I haven't listed them here.)

Admittedly, I don't know much about Lewis and Clark so the material in this book about their expedition was interesting. But the tie-ins to "leadership" were also very compelling. It wasn't the same old book where someone repeats "lead from the front" over and over. For me, there were some true revelations here; specifically with regard to optimism. And the challenges of the expedition rang true as close parallels to working in the fire service.

Recommended for Officers

Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

This book was recommended to me by another firefighter. Like I've said above, I reflexively cringe a little when I pick up a Navy SEALs book. When folks involved in a "secret" organization are willing to spill their guts, I'm worried about what the motivation is. To these authors' credit, their preface addresses that exact concern.

I have also previously questioned how much leadership it takes to lead a group of top performers. In other words, "What lessons can they possibly have on leadership when they haven't had to deal with that firefighter I've got at Station X?" One of the authors, Jocko Willink spoke to this during a podcast in which he says that contrary to conventional wisdom, the SEALs actually have poor performers. Apparently, you can get through all that training and still not be good for the teams.

Anyway, this book didn't blow me away, but there was some stuff in it that I liked a lot. They present the idea that if you have a problem boss, it isn't your bosses' problem but yours. I'm still chewing over where I ultimately settle on this concept, but I embrace their idea of extreme ownership.

Recommended for Officers

Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons From The Hanoi Hilton by Lee Ellis

Fire Departments exist within the confines of the communities and governments they serve. In other words, we are charged to do whatever it takes to "save lives and protect property," but are saddled with constraints; many of which we have no say in. It's easy to get discouraged in a situation like that. You feel like you have no control.

For me, books like this one (and Endurance above) reinforce the idea that it is possible to stay positive and ultimately prevail in the most dire of circumstances. Lee Ellis was shot down over Vietnam and spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war; much of that time in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He writes: "Authentic leaders know that life is difficult. They expect to get knocked down, and they have the proper attitude and outlook to persevere. You have a choice about how you will respond to difficulties. Confront the brutal realities of your situation, but never give up hope."

Recommended for Officers

Lincoln On Leadership by Donald T. Phillips

This entry on the "________ On Leadership" books that have flooded the Business sections of your local bookstore, is actually very worth the read. I gauge how much I like a book based on how much I have highlighted. At the end of this one, I had quite a lot in orange.

The author's lessons on leadership are illustrated with very entertaining and often humorous stories of Lincoln and many of the things he wrote and said. It's a really easy read. This book is obviously all about "leadership," but I'm recommending it for all ranks, because it is so easy to read and understand. And because [say it with me] "We're all leaders."

Recommended for all ranks

In Progress

Leadership by Rudolph W. Giuliani

Books titled like this make me cringe. Why not "Hero" or simply "I'm The Greatest"? I almost didn't pick it up, but I leafed through it anyway. What caught my eye was a chapter titled, "Weddings Discretionary, Funerals Mandatory." I liked that. It was so simple. I figured, if that was the only thing I got from the book, it would still be worth the time and the $4.

Look, Giuliani is a lawyer and a politician. He wrote this book just before starting a campaign to run for President, so it's full of stories about how great he ran New York City as Mayor (which plenty of people including the FDNY don't necessarily agree with.) But it's also got a lot of good ideas about how to lead an organization and what's expected of that leader. Whether I agree that he embodies all of the leadership principles he discusses, I have to say I agree with a lot of what he writes in this book about how to conduct yourself as a leader.

Recommended for Officers


This is a really tough category for me. I've not recommended more than I've recommended here because a lot of them suck.

To Sleep With The Angels by David Cowan and John Kuenster

Most books that tell the story of a famous fire aren't written for firefighters; they're written for the public. So, for me, there always seems to be a little bit of romanticizing and hero worship (which I don't respond well to.) This book very effectively avoids that in its telling of the horrific fire at the Our Lady of Angels School which resulted in the deaths of 92 students and 3 nuns. The telling really hit me hard on a couple of different levels; firefighter, parent, etc. The then head of the NFPA famously said, "There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded."

Recommended for all ranks (because as members of the fire profession, we should have a knowledge of our history.)

The Winecoff Fire by Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin

Years ago, an elderly man walked into the fire station I was assigned to and began to talk. He eventually revealed he was in the Winecoff Hotel that horrible night and escaped the fire. His story was amazing (as was his list of things he now does in every hotel before going to sleep.) The Winecoff Hotel was a "Fire Proof" hotel that managed to catch fire and kill 119 guests; many of whom were under 20 years old. It's still the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history. I'm not going to pump the book up here; it's only an average read. But I'm glad I had read the book and had some knowledge of the fire when that elderly gentlemen visited the station.

Recommended for all ranks (because as member of the fire profession, we should have a knowledge of our history.)

Trapped Under The Sea by Neil Swidey

This is the story of a ten mile long tunnel under Boston Harbor, the problem at the end of the tunnel, and the men sent in to fix it. Some barely escaped with their lives. Some didn't. More importantly, and why it makes my list, is the fact that this tragedy is like most tragedies involving the fire service. When we look back at what went wrong, it isn't one glaring problem. Instead it's a series of very small problems; so small that they may have been overlooked accidentally, or tragically considered so minute that they couldn't possibly matter (but ultimately do.)

Confined space. IDLH environments. High Risk/Low Frequency event. Specially designed new equipment. Never tried before tactics. This story about divers could just as easily have been one about firefighters. And as you read, you'll see similarities between this story and some of our profession's worst tragedies.

There is a strong lesson here for the leaders: if your idea is so great, it should be able to withstand scrutiny. The lesson for the followers is as important: when something doesn't feel right, it's your obligation to voice your concerns.

Recommended for all ranks (Because we are all leaders and followers)


Being a good follower is a critical skill often overshadowed by the idea of leadership being the end all be all of firefighter existence. It's not.

The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team by Patrick Lencioni

Talk about changing your perceptions. This book was recommended to me by another firefighter, and it hit me over the head like a piece of sheetrock during overhaul. I thought I was doing pretty good as a member and/or leader of a team, and then I found out that trust is inherently connected to forgiveness. (Mind blown.) And then I realized that I'm doing just about everything I shouldn't be doing. As I read, the book basically told me that I was actively embodying three of the five dysfunctions.

I usually don't go for these kinds of books; a fable about some fictional company with a cast of characters used to illustrate some point the author wanted to make. But here? It works. Plain and simple. I read it in one night.

Recommended for Officers (But there's plenty here for firefighters too or any member of a team.)

Profiles In Courage by John F. Kennedy

Written by then Senator John F. Kennedy, this book could have been titled: "So, This Is The Hill You Want To Die On." It's the collected stories of eight U.S. Senators who made choices to go against their own party or the public in the interest of doing what was right. It's an empowering book for an idealist (yours truly in my more self indulgent moments,) but also a very harsh book when you realize the terrible price standing on your principles can exact.

This book, like my last recommendation, doesn't appear on the outside like a book aimed at rookie firefighters. But I think this book is perfect for rookie firefighters because they have a tendency to think that every hill is worth dying on. Granted, there are definitely times to take a stand, but seasoned firefighters and officers in a department get tempered throughout their careers to learn when to make a stand and when to live to fight another day.

This book very effectively highlights instances where it was important to make a stand. The hill was certainly worth dying on. It's a lesson for newer firefighters because whether you can wear shorts as part of your station uniform isn't a hill worth dying on.

Recommended to all ranks (I mean, it won a Pulitzer Prize. What more do you want?)

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

Another of my used bookstore finds. The title was definitely intriguing, so I handed over my four dollars.

I've attended any number of leadership classes where someone stands in front of you and tells you that "people don't work for money." (I've always disagreed with this and told the lecturer/instructor so. I most definitely work for money. If you stop paying me, I'll have to find someone else who will pay me. Gotta eat. Gotta pay the bills.)

What I think those instructors were trying to say is that people don't do great work for money. That motivation, to do extraordinary things, is inside every one of us. As the author Pink writes, "Have you ever seen a six-month old or a three-year-old who's not curious and self-directed?...That's how we are out of the box. If, at age fourteen or forty-three, we're passive and inert...it's because something flipped our default setting."

I've had a long standing debate with myself about whether you can truly motivate someone else, or whether all motivation comes from within. (I can beat you with a stick and get you to do something, but that's a corrupted kind of motivation.) There are lots of great ideas in this book about unlocking a person's self motivation. In fact, the last chapter of the book is a toolkit with ideas to find your spark, or maybe your coworker's. I think it's definitely worth your time.

Recommended for all ranks

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer

I read this book because it was on Chief Tanks' list of recommended reading, and I wasn't disappointed. I must admit, however, that I did struggle at the beginning. At one point I wanted to put it down, but I'm glad I didn't.

This book spends a good deal of time teaching you to identify when a conversation is approaching critical mass, and then gives you the tools to potentially keep the conversation from devolving into a completely unproductive exchange. The chapter entitled "Master My Stories" particularly hit home for me for reasons too extensive to go into here.

I'm confident that any objective reader of this book will identify strategies for improving their communication skills using the principles taught in this book. It's worth your time.

Recommended for all ranks


Lessons are where you find them. If you're not looking, you can't see.

Leadership And Training For The Fight by MSG. Paul R. Howe U.S. Army (Ret.)

I bought this book because of the title and who wrote it. Paul Howe was a Delta operator during the Battle of Mogadishu. In the film Black Hawk Down, he was the Delta Sergeant who butted heads with the Ranger Captain a few times.

This is a good book for anyone who is trying to develop a training philosophy for their department. It contains concrete plans on how to create training designed to prepare students for the trials of performing in real world scenarios. It was a little more training heavy and leadership light than what I was looking for when I bought it. Still, a good book worth recommending.

Recommended for Training Officers

When Cops Kill by Lance J. LoRusso

Granted, this is a little bit of a stretch for this list, but hear me out. The author, Lance J. LoRusso, is a former police officer, now attorney who defends police officers. And if you're thinking, "Well, that's cop stuff," you couldn't be more wrong. Whether it's a cop that shot someone, a cop who has been shot, a firefighter who was killed or injured, or a firefighter who was negligent, the basic process for your department's investigation is virtually the same.

This book is very insightful explaining in detail the ins and outs of the internal affairs investigation process. Hopefully, most of you will never need this insight. But as a chief officer in a large metropolitan department, some of the information in this short book has been very helpful to me.

Recommended for Officers