One of the most significant and debilitating pathologies I observe in today’s organizations is the habit of firefighting.
In these environments, leader’s conversations revolve around the crisis of the day, rushing unproductively from one to the next. They often spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with unexpected and recurring problems, previously “resolved” with temporary and incomplete patchwork.
Truth be told, many leaders are addicted to the personal high they get from firefighting. Whether it’s the adrenaline they feel during a crisis, the satisfaction that comes from extinguishing the fire, or the acknowledgement they get from being the hero that saved the day, many individuals can become hooked on putting out these fires.
The shadow side (those aspects of our personality we choose to reject and repress) of our heroic firefighter is failing to lead, marked by an inability to anticipate issues and reacting with short-sighted choices. Frenetic thinking and operating results in a pattern of poor leadership choices: doing other people’s work for them, shifting resources away from their standard work, casting aside procedures, and missing the opportunity to develop their people. These firefighters gravitate toward the comfort of quick fixes versus transforming the underlying issues outside their current understanding.
Leaders who move from crisis to crisis are failing to lead their teams into the future and often use fires as an excuse for not achieving committed goals, and/or being unwilling to set new ones. In doing so, they fail to acknowledge that if their department is not improving over time, they are not doing their job because leading means improving!
To break this unproductive pattern, leaders must replace short-sighted choices with improved choice-making:
Principle 1: Wake up to your role.
While you were likely promoted due to your technical skills and depth of experience, putting out individual fires is no longer your role. Instead, focus on long-term improvement (doing right for tomorrow) while your team worries about today.
Principle 2: Escape short-term thinking.
Firefighting cultures are invariably over-steering on short-term performance. By recognizing this impulse you can stop chasing “everything” and instead, prioritize problems based on what’s best for the organization’s future. When you focus on more significant problems, you are beginning the journey to improved long-term performance.
Principle 3: Stop rewarding firefighting.
Conversations with habitual firefighters (or reflecting on your own firefighting) should focus on learning and prevention. Blame-free conversations that explore and challenge choices in support of making them (and you) better leaders:
- What did we intend? What were we trying to achieve?
- What happened? How did the problem start? What enabled it to grow? What kept us from intervening sooner?
- What did we learn? What can we explain? What requires further investigation?
- What will prevent future occurrence? What worked that we can repeat? What can we do differently? What good habits can we implement? What bad habits will we leave behind?
Principle 4: Don’t tolerate temporary fixes.
In order to escape the pattern of superficial problem solving, leaders need to create an environment committed to developing permanent solutions. This means developing a culture of problem-solving and problem solvers. Making this shift will be marked by three fundamental leadership shifts:
- Leaders need to slow down. A hurried pace will continually undermine the time needed to observe, study, and understand problems as well as the time to properly engineer solutions that last. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
- Leaders must have the courage to let some fires burn so they can shift their focus to identifying root causes, generating countermeasures, and proposing preliminary experiments to address recurring fires.
- Leaders must develop an organization of problem solvers rather than relying predominantly on their best problem solvers. By giving the people the closest to the work a problem-solving playbook and the opportunity to develop experience, you activate more of your organizations brainpower while generating more problem-solving capacity and speed for the future.
As quality thinking and actions take center stage, your problem solvers will begin to generate small tactical wins as they get one opportunity area under control before moving on to the next. Each underlying problem resolved means fewer future fires.
Leaving these tactical wins to your team also creates new space for you to solve progressively more ambitious and pervasive challenges, thereby delivering more significant victories to your stakeholders. These improved choices also enable greater control of your environment, allowing you to invest more leadership energy surfacing new possibilities and shaping your organization for the future.
Realizing this preferred future requires acknowledging the significance of the principles above and having the courage to methodically replace your current choices with newer, better ones.