DALLAS — Firefighters face some of the most difficult and dangerous situations in any profession, so effective leadership is crucial.

"No matter what you want to do with your fire department, leadership is the only thing that matters," said Dennis Compton, chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and former fire chief in Mesa, Arizona. "It's going to affect everything you try to do."

At the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Fire-Rescue International 2014, Compton outlined several essential leadership principles for the fire service. And leaders can apply these important principles in any industry or field.

Lead by example

This the No. 1 principle you'll find in any leadership class, yet it's often overlooked by those in top positions. Take note of a few ways to put this into action:

  • Talk the talk, then walk the walk. People are watching you to see if you really believe what you say. So validate it.
  • Earn the trust of others. When you step into a leadership position, you give up the right to talk behind people's backs, Compton said. Anything negative you say about your co-workers will spread much faster than something positive. "There's nothing you can do to help yourself unless you quit doing it," he said. "Don't think you're going to get away with that."
  • Earn the respect of others. If you're rude or disrespectful toward others, people won't respect you. If you respect your employees, they'll respect you even when you're not around.

Be aware of your command presence

Your presence sets the tone for who you are as a leader — and can make or break you. Confidence is key here, but be sure to keep a balanced ego, Compton said, noting the fine line between arrogance and confidence.

Equally important are appearance and composure.

"Dress like a slob, people don't buy into your principles," Compton said. "They may not even buy into you being a leader."

Manage change and respect opinion leaders

Respecting opinion leaders — those who have great influence over their peers — is key to affecting change within your organization. They tend to speak out, and peers may ask them for advice since they're seen as credible.

If you're managing change in your organization, share your ideas with them, Compton said. Even if they don't buy in initially, they might share an idea you didn't think of, so fostering relationships with these employees is key.

Don't reward poor behavior

As leaders, the most powerful tool you have in motivating employees' performance is whether you reward or punish their behavior. But rewarding doesn't always come in the form of a prize or pat on the back. Accepting it — such as simply not speaking up when you see it — has the same effect.

"What you tolerate you end up seeing over and over again," Compton said. "Behavior and performance that is rewarded tends to be repeated."

Compton recommends punishing poor behavior when deemed necessary, but no amount of punishment will be effective until the employee actively decides to make a change.

"Is there a place for punishment in the system? Yes," Compton said. "Will punishment change a person's performance? It will not."

Make the change

Put these principles into action and you may see more than just a subtle change within your department, Compton said. The effects of your leadership may stretch farther down the road than you think, too — which is why your actions today are so crucial.

"It's possible that having to work with a certain officer could be the best or worst thing that happens in someone's career," he said. "Especially someone young."