Are Fires Running Your Organization?

I’m amazed at the epidemic of firefighting that has taken over organizations. Stretched organizations are asking people to do more with less and to maintain or grow the business, yet these same stretched leaders and their teams are really managed by the daily fires that take over. Leaders may have a plan for the day, week, month or year but fires seem to pop up daily. When we get really good at firefighting then everything seems to be a fire and then we become reactive employees who are controlled by the constant onslaught of crises, problems, issues and exceptions. The focus then shifts,  making it impossible to lead under these conditions. To break this pattern, consider both sides of this dilemma: the symptoms that lead you to the firefighting trap and ways you can change to take back control. Symptoms of Firefighting

  1. You’re good at firefighting. You like it. You put out fires. Others bring them to you. You seek them out. You are so good at it that you skip lunch and other work to figure it out. Unless your job is to fight fires, you may just have the firefighting bug.
  2. You’ve trained and rewarded others around you for putting out fires quickly. Be careful here. Real fires are worth putting out quickly. Is this a fire or has this become your primary approach to managing your team or organization?
  3. You prefer fighting fires to your primary job. You probably get rewarded for fighting fires. You put them out. Someone will let you know if it hasn’t been taken care of (if you are the leader who has created this situation, then ask yourself if this is your long-term strategy for success).
  4. You can only get a response when a fire is created. Are you then creating fires that aren’t really fires? If everything is important, then people can pick and choose what to work on. They certainly aren’t thinking proactively ahead for how to grow and develop and innovate.

How to Shift (back) to Proactive Leadership

  1. Have a daily, weekly or monthly plan. Be sure you do something that is proactive, planned, strategic and important on a daily or weekly basis.
  2. Filter the fires. If you fight fires on a daily or weekly basis, challenge yourself: which one or two fires can be approached differently so they don’t creep back in?
  3. Review the fires you typically fight. Which one or two can you attack proactively so that they are less likely to emerge later.  You may secretly like to fight the fires. Resist the temptation and try a different approach one fire at a time.
  4. When the fires, problems and exceptions prompt your action, then you are merely reacting and NOT leading. Challenge yourself. What will you lead? Where are you going? What is your plan for the next 30 and 90 days? What is your 18 month vision? What will you do daily and weekly to move closer to your 30 or 90 day plan?
  5. Cut ‘em off at the pass. I know that Harvey Korman said he hated that phrase in Blazing Saddles. But you really do need to find that short cut that prevents the fires from happening. Anticipate the fires. Are you inadvertently hiding poor performance by fighting fires? Are your daily and weekly choices leading to fires later? If so, stop that. Anticipate fires. Have the solutions ready and waiting before the fires emerge.
  6. Recognize that you may be part of the problem. Are you inadvertently reinforcing reactivity and fire fighting among your team? How are you reinforcing those who are doing the daily grind? Is more fanfare provided to those who put out fires than to those who proactively and deliberately manage and lead their team and organization? This is a choice: proactive leading where many follow and perform at a high and steady rate or an organization that reacts, fights fires, complains about it but is so good at it that they just keep doing it. The choice is yours.