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Webster’s Dictionary defines Tunnel Vision as:

  • constriction of the visual field resulting in loss of peripheral vision
  •   extreme narrowness of viewpoint : narrow-mindedness; also : single-minded concentration on one objective

In the Fire service, we often associate “tunnel vision” with the narrowing field of view during an incident based on a multitude of factors. When our heart rate elevates during an emergency incident it affects our ability to process dynamic information. We lose the ability to see and hear clearly, and even lose some dexterity in our hands. This can lead to missing something critical on the fire ground. While this is important I want to talk about another kind of tunnel vision.

                                                 Leadership Tunnel Vision

As leaders assigned to lead groups of people our objectives can be even more dynamic than the fire ground. The dynamic nature comes from the fact that leadership is about people, and as we know no one person is the same even people of similar nature have different motivations, goals, and desires. The dynamic nature of leading a variety of people can often cause leaders to lose sight of the mission at hand and being to, narrow their focus, or lose situational awareness causing tunnel vision.

On the fire ground, external factors such as the amount of fire, victims, physical exertion, etc. can cause us to develop tunnel vision and fixate on 1 thing. In leadership, other factors influence let’s examine some of those factors.

Ego: This is a big one! In fact most problems leaders face boil down to their own ego. You perceive yourself to be better, or more committed than a particular person and you focus on the negative aspects and not the positive ones. No matter what this person can do no right or they always fall short even if they are making improvements along the way. I can attribute a majority of my leadership failures formally and informally to ego.

Emotion: This is another big one. As humans we are emotional creatures, we often put emotion into things that have none. Think about reading an email or text message, they are just words on a screen but we assign emotional value or intent to those words usually where none exists.  This can cause us to narrow our focus and even abuse our leadership power.

Too Close: On the emergency scene, we utilize command level officers to maintain the big picture. Often times company level officers at the task level are too close to the problem to devise an overall strategy. The firehouse is no different. Company level officers work on shift with those they supervise. They eat, laugh, workout, share and everything else together. This can cause the leader to miss things because they are too close to the problem to see it.

Now that we know some of the pitfalls that can lead to leadership tunnel vision we can take steps to avoid them.

  1. Keep your ego in check! You may be the best officer or senior firefighter in your department, but did you get there alone? I am willing to bet someone or several someone’s helped you along the way. Remember where you came from and take mentoring people seriously.
  2. We are emotional creatures so when faced with something difficult attempt to take your emotion out of it. Focus on the problem, or performance not the emotional strings pulling at you. However, remember there are somethings that require our emotions to be fully engaged. Examples of this are when someone brings your difficulties at home, or with a loved one. In those cases you should be completely emotionally invested until it begins to negatively affect performance. Then you must pull your emotions back while still giving support, and providing resources but remembering performance is the measurement point. It is an extremely give and take process.
  3. Jocko calls it “detachment”, in the book Leadership on the Line they refer to pulling yourself out of the crowd and up to the balcony. No matter what you call it you have to be able to separate from the problem in order to see it. If you can-not pull yourself out far enough, then find someone who can! This should be a trusted peer who can advise you in personnel matters.


These are just a few things you can do to prevent “Leadership Tunnel Vision” from occurring. Like anything else involving leadership nothing is perfect, or easy. Make sure you are engaged, and investing in your shift or station every day, and beware the signs of Leadership Tunnel Vision.

As usual thanks for reading, spread the word, and STAY SAFE!

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