Five emotional and social intelligence skills of outstanding Incident Commanders

Results of a study

Southern California Incident Management Team 3
Southern California Incident Management Team 3

It could be argued that fire suppression skill is not the most critical characteristic of an Incident Commander (IC) on a large fire. Complex emergency incidents involve large numbers of employees working long hours under arduous conditions for an extended period of days while meeting critical deadlines and attempting to achieve difficult objectives under the watchful eyes of local residents, politicians, and the media. Sure, it is very beneficial for an IC to know the basics of how to plan and execute a “big box” strategy of containing a wildfire, but if they do not have advanced levels of emotional and social intelligence they may not be successful in the overall management of the incident. They could stop the fire, but at what cost to Incident Management Team cohesion, interpersonal relationships, property, safety, reputation of the agency within the local community, and the desire of personnel to continue to be a member of the team.

Emotional intelligence is informally defined as the ability to manage your own and other’s emotions. Social intelligence has been described as the ability to manage other’s emotions and build and maintain healthy relationships with others. These concepts have been written about for decades.

Using funding from the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, four researchers attempted to determine which emotional and social intelligence (ESI) skills were possessed by the most effective ICs. Their findings are in a paper published in 2017, “Emotional and Social Intelligence Competencies of Incident Team Commanders Fighting Wildfires“, by Richard E. Boyatzis, Kiko Thiel, Kylie Rochford, and Anne Black.

To begin, they contacted by email all of the Type 1 and Type 2 ICs and Operations Section Chiefs that were active and eligible at the time, asking them to go to a web site and “write in the name of any Incident Commander whom you think is an outstanding leader. You can write in as many or as few names as you feel appropriate.” The 17 ICs that were nominated by multiple people were then labeled “outstanding performers” by the researchers. Then, an additional sample of 17 “average performers” was randomly selected from those who were not nominated as outstanding by anyone. Difficulties in contacting the ICs and their willingness to respond to e-mails and phone calls resulted in a sample of eight outstanding and seven average ICs being interviewed.

The 15 ICs were asked, “Tell me about a time, recently, in which you felt effective as an Incident Commander.” The interviewer attempted to extract as behaviorally detailed a description of the event as possible. After one “effective” incident was obtained, the interviewer asked about an event in which they felt ineffective. This sequence was repeated, yielding a total of four critical incidents per interview. All interviews were recorded and transcribed.

The 60 incidents in the 15 interviews were coded for ESI competencies with criteria that has been used for decades: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, adaptability, achievement orientation, positive outlook, empathy, organizational awareness, coach and mentor, inspirational leadership, influence, conflict management, teamwork (social intelligence competencies); and systems thinking and pattern recognition (cognitive competencies).

While it might seem like a sample size of 15 ICs is small, the results showed striking and statistically significant differences between the Outstanding and Average ICs in some categories.

Presence and Frequency of ESI Competencies incident commanders
From the study

Five competencies distinguished the Outstanding ICs:

  • Emotional self-control
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Coach and mentor, and
  • Inspirational leadership

Five other competencies appeared often enough in both outstanding and average performing groups to be considered necessary for average performance but not sufficient alone for outstanding performance:

  • Achievement orientation
  • Organizational awareness
  • Influence
  • Conflict management, and
  • Teamwork

Below are some excerpts from the study.

Emergent Themes
The inductive portion of the study seeking to address the Research Question 2 (i.e., which was Are there other perspectives or capabilities that differentiate the more effective ICs from less effective ones?) revealed two emergent themes: appreciation of interpersonal dynamics and humanizing versus dehumanizing ways of thinking about others. The outstanding ICs showed an appreciation of the interpersonal dynamics of incident teams by using time in advance of wildfire season to build trust among possible team members. They also used this time to build relationships and educate agency staff and administrators. This theme was coded in five of the eight outstanding ICs compared with only one of the seven average ICs. The presence of this theme was indicated talking explicitly about using of time before wildfire season to build understanding, expertise, and trust within the teams. In one case, the IC created simplified handouts for all team members involved in an incident to highlight the key people involved, their role, experience, and contact details. This was used for their own teams but also widely distributed to those from other agencies, local administrators, and community members.

The second emergent theme—humanizing versus dehumanizing ways of thinking about others—was evidenced by the use (or lack of use) of humanizing language. Examples of humanizing language included references to “family, kids, community.” For example, one IC said, “I’ve got kids out there on the ground . . . ” Another said, “there are families in the line that we have to protect . . . ” Examples of dehumanizing language included language that it turned people into categories, with words like, “stakeholders, employees.” One IC said, “Our personnel are key resources . . . ” After coding the number of humanizing versus dehumanizing words used across the four incidents, we subtracted the dehumanizing word count from the humanizing word count. Seven of the eight outstanding ICs had a positive score, compared with only one of the seven average ICs (six of the seven average ICs had a negative score, while none of the outstanding ICs had a negative score).


Given the number of people for whom an IC must interact, coordinate and lead, it is not surprising that ESI competencies appeared to distinguish outstanding from average ICs. Outstanding ICs mobilize, inspire, and guide at a team and individual level (using inspirational leadership and influence; Mockenhaupt, 2014). They manage diverse and sometimes competing interests of these people (using empathy). At the same time, ICs show the ability to develop a specific plan and stay on it (using achievement orientation). The outstanding ICs are able to adapt and change their plan when necessary (using adaptability). This is not as simple as seeking common goals or even overarching goals. Additionally, ICs successfully juggle the safety of people in the community and in the team with the protection of wildland, vegetation, animals, as well as commercial interests (using conflict management and teamwork). Finally, outstanding ICs continually motivate, mobilize, and inspire others (with inspirational leadership).

Inspirational leadership and emotional self-control emerged as the strongest differentiators of outstanding leaders. Using inspirational leadership enables the IC to activate and motivate others to work together and on the plan. They give the team enough wiggle room to make operational adjustments on the ground. The emotional self-control is evident in their ability to suppress personal feelings and emotional reactions during intense moments. These leaders must persevere in their purpose and specifics even in the face of danger from fire, politics, and even adamant citizens often in a state of fear and agitation—as was the case in one incident.

At the same time, adaptability becomes critical as actual winds, as well as political winds, change. The fires move fast and with many moments of uncertainty. The fire will jump fire lines and evade logic from previous fires. This calls for ICs to adapt to situations, ways of working, and methods that they have not necessarily encountered before (Frye & Wearing, 2011; Weick, 1993). An interesting example adaptability is the increasing use of social media during major fires to keep many different groups informed and mobilized for safety. If someone in their 20s had done this, we might believe it is common. But when ICs who are much older and have not used social media in their work or lives are willing to experiment with and adopt these new technologies, it shows a willingness to adapt. As Frye and Wearing (2011) found in their interview studies of ICs, adaptability and emotional self-control may be essential in helping an IC develop a sense of cognitive control and combat the potential damage from cognitive overload.

The coach and mentor competency also differentiated the outstanding ICs. As well as the “on-the ground” work, the IC role requires also thinking ahead, beyond the current fire, to the next. The IC is charged with preparing potential team members, building trust in their team, and establishing relationships, as well as providing technical and tactical training for future ICs, team members, and members of other law enforcement and fire fighters and community groups. The outstanding ICs took an active role in educating local firefighters and community groups about managing wildfires, as well as in ways to minimize fire (and flood) threat in the future.

The quality of training, development, and socialization that occurs for fire personnel coming up through the ranks of the Incident Command System to IC was evident in the stories we heard. The critical incidents revealed many stories of fires fought well and with minimal loss of life, property, and nature. The presence of five important competencies as thresholds, meaning many outstanding and average ICs demonstrated them frequently, is evident of this preparation. Those competencies included organizational awareness, influence, conflict management, achievement orientation, and teamwork. Organizational awareness refers to understanding the benefits and perceiving ways to build relationships with these diverse groups. Influence is about getting people to buy into the plan and the methods to be used. Achievement orientation is necessary to maximize resources and time, continually trying to do better against multiple standards of excellence. This includes articulating and achieving measurable goals. Conflict management is getting individuals or groups to resolve disagreements by bringing them into the open and agreeing to higher order objectives. Teamwork is getting a group of people to work together effectively and feel a part of the team or group.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

5 thoughts on “Five emotional and social intelligence skills of outstanding Incident Commanders”

  1. While my experience agrees with the findings, I find it interesting that after the introduction, we come to find out that only ICs and Ops nominated folks. Where is the input from the rest of the C&G? Would the “outstanding” and “average” ICs be different if those views were taken into account? Would we have a more complete picture of what makes an outstanding leader able to negotiate the demands of a highly complex incident?

    1. Tom, can you be more specific?

      Can you see this list?

      Five competencies distinguished the Outstanding ICs:
      -Emotional self-control
      -Coach and mentor, and
      -Inspirational leadership

      There is also an image that shows information about 12 characteristics.

      1. Sorry, I should have been more specific. I wish I could see the list of the outstanding ICs.


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