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Four Reasons Why Great Leaders Aren’t Firefighters

by Kevin Eikenberry on February 10, 2014

FirefighterThe role that firefighters play in our society is secure. The way that we honor their service is appropriate. I have close friends who are and have been firefighters, and so I personally hold them in high regard. Great firefighters are leaders of their teams in situations far beyond what most of us could imagine. Situations of heat and crisis – we are talking flames, folks.

And most of us don’t fight real live flames, but yet we talk about “putting out the fires” in our work, in our teams and in our departments. We speak metaphorically, yet act as if the crisis is as real and urgent as a fire nearing a propane tank in an urban neighborhood.

Chances are, the situation isn’t that dire or immediate.

But as leaders we feel like we need to step in and solve the problems and urgent situations and put out the fires that threaten our teams, departments and profits. Most leaders I know have their fire-retardant suit ready at all times.

Contrary to popular practice (and maybe even popular belief), I don’t believe great leaders are firefighters – at least not most of the time. There are significant negative results that arise when we as organizational leaders try to put out all of the urgent fires in our organizations.

We create co-dependence. If we are on the front lines of every fire, we are telling our team two things: first, that when there is a fire, they should come and tell us; and second, their job is to identify problems, not solve them. It is great if you are skilled in a crisis – that might have been what got you promoted. But if you keep manning the fire hose, you are teaching others to give that task to you, not do it themselves. Perhaps inadvertently or unconsciously, but if you are putting out fires, others know they don’t have to. And isn’t it easier to bring a problem to someone else than deal with it ourselves?

We thwart the development of others. You are likely really good at putting out organizational fires. It is likely that happened because someone gave you a chance to get good at it. Part of your job as a leader is to prepare others for their future by equipping them with the right experiences to succeed. If you are always holding the fire hose, how will they ever learn those skills themselves? Instead, let them deal with the urgent, and coach and support them before and after to improve their skills.

We put all focus on the urgent. When you are busy with the urgent, how much time do you have to stop and think about problem solving or capturing new opportunities? Not much, right? People and organizations can’t run on adrenaline forever. At some point someone has to be thinking about the big picture and not putting out the newest flames that are threatening our profits. That person is you.

We divert our time where it isn’t needed. If you look at your list of tasks and never feel like you get to the important stuff, it is likely because you are picking up the fire hose too often. Others can put out most of the fires, and if they can’t, teach and coach them. That, to the point of the other three reasons just mentioned, is your job. You need to work on the things that only you can uniquely do – and you won’t get to those important things if you are living in the urgent.

Am I saying there is never a time that we as leaders should spring to action in an emergency?Smokey the Bear

Not at all.

There will be times when our experience, knowledge and perspective (as well as being another set of hands to help) will be needed. I’m simply saying to save our firefighting efforts for the real crisis situations, not the urgent situations that arise every week (or day!).

When we figure this out we can do the work we were hired to do – which isn’t firefighting, but fire prevention. Hear me clearly, our role as a leader is to create an organization where fewer fires occur, so the efforts and talents of our teams can be focused on the important matters that can help us reach our mission.

If you believe this you will put away your helmet and gloves and focus more of your attention on the important matters in your work instead of jumping at every fire alarm that goes off.

The best leaders aren’t firefighters, they focus on fire prevention. (Tweet that.)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Krystal February 16, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Bravo Kevin! Great article (again). Now, how do I convince my boss of this?

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Kevin Eikenberry February 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm

To start – have them read the article and then talk about it.

Kevin :)

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