What’s so Great About the LAFD Leadership Academy? An interview with Chuck Ruddell

May 1, 2019

This course is tough – it includes extensive reading, student journals, written exams and a 20-page term paper. Can you handle it? The program is presented over 136 hours, meeting one week per month over a four-month period. Can you make the time? The Los Angeles Fire Department Leadership Academy provides a skill set that builds upon the foundation necessary for successful leadership. Can you afford to pass up this opportunity?

Can you start at the beginning? What’s the why and how of the Leadership Academy?
After the Rampart scandal, the LAPD knew they needed to make some changes. So the cops teamed up with West Point to bring a leadership program to Los Angeles. LAPD tweaked the program and made it exclusively for law enforcement. That’s unlike our program which is for leaders from all walks of life.

“There are no uniforms, no rank

and everyone checks their egos at the door”

When we had our own Rampart – the dog food caper – LAFD started doing H.R. training. I was assigned to IST, and along with Paul Nelson, we facilitated the training sessions with a civilian instructor. But it wasn’t an effective program.

Andy Fox decided we should bring the LAPD program to the LAFD. So we took their curriculum and reoriented the case studies to the fire service.

So the program is not just for LAFD officers?
The first few classes were all LAFD company officers. But we quickly started to expand. Firefighters from other agencies . . . we’ve probably had every officer on Beverly Hills Fire through the program. And then civilian agencies . . . I think all the executive staff from the Dept of Neighborhood Empowerment have taken the course. And now it’s spreading across the country, and even international . . . we have a firefighter from Canada in the program right now.

How have you been able to attract such a diverse group of students from across the country?
It’s all by word of mouth. The course has really helped to forge relationships between our department and others. The City has bent over backwards to accommodate us. It’s enabled us to create a program that is on a level with the National Fire Academy.

And it’s changed attitudes. There may have been a time when we had a tarnished reputation and only we were saying LAFD was the best. Now I think everyone is looking at the LAFD through the lens of the Leadership Academy and many agree that we really are the best.

What are you teaching that is so compelling?
If as a leader, you see a drop in satisfaction, motivation or performance in any of your people, you’d better be on top of it. But there is no one-size fits all solution. This course gives you a model to use to come up with an action plan that can be used in a variety of situations.

It’s a behavioral science course. We study the links between leadership and the satisfaction, motivation, and performance of those being led. We provide the principles that will enable you to learn to develop your own leadership style. You get a good mix of scientific theory and practical application.

But we never talk about ops. It’s always people issues. Like how to handle the disgruntled guy who is poisoning your crew. Or what to do about the 40-year-old going through mid-life crisis. The youngster who is the odd man out in a station of old guys.

In the beginning, we were fighting a culture that did not embrace leadership training. But attitudes have changed everywhere and I think we are ahead of the game on this.

What are some of the things that make this program different?
Our classroom setting enables everyone to speak freely and to interact freely. No one wears uniforms. In this classroom there is no rank. Most importantly, everyone needs to check their ego at the door . . . and their bias.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about your cadre of instructors. How have you been able to entice this top-tier ensemble?
We have had our share of winners and losers in our search for competent instructors for the course. Now though, I think the program speaks for itself – in its ability to attract motivated students as well as extremely qualified instructors.

Early on, we invited in an NFL player who had been with the Patriots – winners for sure. His first presentation was okay, but the next time he came in he brought a partner who was trying to sell everyone life insurance. It was like a bait-and-switch.

Another was one of the LAPD commanders who was involved in the Rampart scandal. He gave a very compelling presentation, but it ended on a sour note. He made himself out to be a victim – never taking responsibility for his short-comings as a leader.

In contrast, we have a former nuclear sub commander that does a segment for each class that is pretty amazing. He was in charge of a sub that crashed into an undersea mountain and killed one of his sailors. It’s very emotional for him each time he does the presentation, but he realizes his shortcomings and takes responsibility for his actions.

We have another instructor who is the commander of the Marine Recruit Center in San Diego. He explains how even the Corps has had to adapt to deal with recruits’ motivation, satisfaction and performance. He insists that the change is not creating “soft” Marines, but that they are just using a different approach with a generation of new recruits who always want to know “why.”

How about a few last words to sum up your tenure at the Leadership Academy and maybe your 38 years with the LAFD.
You know, it’s the people that have made things special for me. I mean, I like football but I wouldn’t want to watch the Superbowl alone.

By Dave Wagner


  • WHERE: The Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center
  • COST: At the present time there is no cost to attend the LAFD Leadership Academy
  • REGISTRATION: LAFD applicants must mail an application along with a recommendation from your immediate supervisor. Outside Agency application must mail a completed application along with a letter of recommendation from your chief or supervisor.

QUESTIONS: Craig Poulson, Captain I, In-Service Training Section at (213) 893-9838 or lafdla@lacity.org.

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