Great Leaders Aren’t Firefighters

The role that firefighters play in our society is certain and secure. I have friends and family who are and have been firefighters. 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 intense heat and crisis – we are talking real danger here folks, and in many cases life and death.

Most of us don’t fight real, live flames, but we talk about “putting out fires” in our agencies. 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.

One of my top mentors, Dan Kennedy shared with me in a one-on-one coaching call, just about everything isn’t as bad … or … as good that we make it out to be in our minds. That is fear and ego driving our thinking.

As leaders in our business and in our homes, we feel like we need to step in and solve the problems and urgent situations, quickly putting out fires that threaten our teams, departments, production, and profits. Many leaders I know have their fire-retardant suit ready at all times. I have been guilty of this behavior, especially earlier in my career.

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 can arise when we as leaders try to put out all of the urgent fires in our organizations.

Leaders that rush to solve all the problems 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.

If you keep manning the water hose, you are teaching others to give that task to you, not handle it themselves.

As leaders we sometimes thwart the development of others. Part of your job as a leader is to prepare others for their future by equipping them with the right experiences to grow and succeed.

There will be times when our experience, knowledge and perspective (as well as being another set of hands to help) will be needed, but we need to save our firefighting efforts for the real crisis situations, not the urgent and no so urgent situations that arise every week (or day!).

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.

The best leaders aren’t firefighters, they focus on fire prevention.