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Leadership – Problem Solving or Putting Out Fires?

     I have had these ideas on leadership swimming around in my head for quite some time. I have now decided to try to share some of my thoughts on leadership in the hopes that my thoughts on the subject might, in some small way may help other leaders or aspiring leaders. At the very least, maybe it will generate the desire to slow down and consider different solutions to problems. You may find, after some thought, that the problem you thought you had isn’t really a problem for anyone but you. While my views on leadership are grounded in the experiences that I have had in the fire service, they are ideas that could surely benefit all leaders if properly applied to their unique situation.

     Each time the leadership of an organization changes, even if the new leader comes from within the organization, other changes will inevitably follow. There is always an air of uncertainty surrounding a new leader that will create tension within the organization. No new leader takes over an organization thinking that they will change nothing, that everything will continue as it has throughout time eternal. They surely didn’t take the job just to be called “Fire Chief “or “Manager” or whatever your organization calls the person at the top. If that is their plan then they are not a leader and have no business calling themselves a leader.

     What kind of leader are you? What kind of leader do you want to be? Since we know that there will be changes, how the changes are made can be a determining factor in what kind of a leader you are and how your changes will be accepted. Unfortunately, we can have an idea of what kind of leader we are, but we are not the ones that get to define our leadership style. Those that we lead get the honor of defining our style. The types of leadership styles are a subject in and of itself and the subject for a different day.

     As the leader you can issue a direct order making a change. It is well within your right to make such a change. We have all seen that type of leader. I believe that the leadership style is called an autocratic style. Autocratic is defined as; relating to a ruler who has absolute power (Oxford, 2018) How lasting is that type of change likely to be? There will be resistance to a change done in this manner and it will likely feed or create turmoil within the organization. It could be a change that everyone can agree is for the betterment of the organization, however, because it is perceived as being “crammed” down the throats of the members it will be resisted. A change made in this manner is not likely to stick. Why? Because the perception is that the change was forced. 

     How can a leader of any organization make changes that benefit the organization, have the changes welcomed by its members, and have the changes stick? Many leaders, especially new leaders will identify a problem and feel that an immediate action is necessary. In some cases, such as an action on the fire ground, an immediate action is called for to prevent death or injury. However, problems that arise within the organization will often be too complex for a quick solution. Many organizational problems are the result of many years of small issues building up over time or of bad habits that have been perpetuated by a culture of; “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”. These problems have no quick fixes. It seems that if a problem took, let’s say, ten years to manifest itself then it stands to reason that no directive or policy will correct the issue overnight. Additionally, the harder you as the leader push for the change, the harder the push back will be.

     It is likely that the problem is not just a simple problem, but more likely it is a compound problem. A compound problem which is the result of several issues being left uncorrected over time until they combine. For these types of problems, a longer more sustained approach is necessary. To correct these problems, you have to look for the issues that combined to create the problem and address these issues individually. These contributory issues can be very difficult to identify, but they are there. Sometimes only one issue will need direct intervention. If you correct one issue the other issues that are combining to create the problem are unable to survive. I have seen compound problems that were like fires. As firefighters we learned that a fire is a chemical reaction. A fire requires heat, oxygen, and fuel, that combine to create the self-sustaining chemical reaction. If you remove one component the chemical reaction cannot be maintained and the fire goes out. Many compound problems can be solved the same way. Correct a contributing factor, the other factors are unable to survive, and the problem will correct itself.

     For example, poor attitudes create turmoil within an organization and they need to be addressed to improve efficiency and the work environment as a whole. We all have bad days, but repeatedly having bad days can create an atmosphere where people don’t want to participate. How can you modify attitudes without people thinking they were being forced to change? We have all probably heard how environmental factors such as poor lighting can affect how people feel, replacing the lights in a station with high efficiency LED lighting can change attitudes just by make making people feel better. I am not saying that changing lights is a silver bullet to modify attitudes every time, but what I am saying, is this was a contributing factor. Correcting this contributing factor had a positive affect for us. Step back and look at problems as a whole. In many instances addressing the issues that contribute to the problems can be just as effective, and often more effective, than addressing the problem head on.

     This is just one example. I have seen other problems corrected this same way without any resistance from the organization at all. Why no resistance from the organization? The reason is simple. The issue you corrected was so small and insignificant to the organization that no one noticed any corrective action taking place. Everyone in the organization thought we were just replacing lights. No one, including me, realized what we were really replacing were attitudes until we noticed how much better everyone that worked at the station felt afterword. To the organization the problem appeared to correct itself, which we all know rarely happens. The appearance of self-correction is fine. A good leader does not need credit for everything they do. The credit will come later, or it may never come. The good leaders I have known in my career didn’t care about the credit, but they were highly respected both within and outside the organization. If you concentrate on correcting little things and concentrate on making the members of your organization look good, you, as the leader, will look good too. It may take a few years, but you will start to notice the change. The result is a lasting change, that to everyone but you, will seem to have just happened over time.

     As I said, changing lights is not a silver bullet to modify attitudes, but in this case, it was enough of a contributing factor to make a difference. What I learned from this experience is to look at a problem deeper than what we might see at the surface. If we can resist the urge to immediately take action, we can often find a solution that is far less painful to the organization and in the end much more productive.

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