First In, Last Out: Leadership Lessons from the New York Fire Department
By John Salka
Though we tend to blame fires on a single thing, like a naked wire, a stray spark, or a lit match, in actuality fire has three essential elements: heat, oxygen, and fuel. The three points of this triangle interact to form the chain reaction that leads to combustion. In the same way, leadership is not sparked by any one thing, such as charisma or presence or rank, but is built on a foundation created by three leadership commitments.
These commitments are not inborn virtues, techniques, or skills. They're disciplines that you've got to learn. And that's good news, because it means any of us can master them. All it takes is constant attention and effort. "First in, last out" leadership is hard work, but I can guarantee that if you truly apply yourself, and do your best to honor this leadership triangle, you'll be able to reach your full potential.
Many leadership failures actually result from an unwillingness to face the true nature of a situation. Think, for example, of how the American auto industry almost went out of business in the 1970s after ignoring consumers' demands for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. The auto manufacturers' refusal to acknowledge the reality of their business environment (higher gas prices, environmental concerns) and the demands of the customers led them to the brink of disaster. That's why the first commitment has to be to reality. You've got to be relentless in going after the truth, no matter what.
The second commitment is to treating your people as assets. Or to put it another way, it's a commitment to stop looking at your people as just plain, old, ordinary people and instead to start seeing them in a new light: as the engines that drive your organization.
The third and final commitment is to developing leaders at all levels of your organization. This is probably the most challenging of the three, and to make it happen you'll need to draw on a number of different leadership competencies. However, it's also the most powerful: with it, you'll be able to expand your influence throughout your organization and help move it in the right direction.
Follow the Smoke
Sometimes we refer to fire as the Beast or the Demon-not out of some misplaced sense of the melodramatic, but because sometimes it behaves like something that's trying really hard to kill us. It can lurk undiscovered in the basement, chewing away at the floor beneath us. It can travel unseen inside the walls. It can leap across fifty-foot gaps between buildings or across a four-lane thoroughfare. It can fester inside a closed room, ready to explode in the face of the first firefighter to step through the door.
While we firefighters may not always be able to see the fire right away, we know, like any good hunter, how to track it. Smoke is the key. From its color and smell, an experienced firefighter can tell you what kind of substance is fueling a fire and how long it's been burning. From the volume of smoke, we can sometimes tell how advanced the burn is. But most important, by following the smoke we can find and fight the fire itself.
I just want to make one thing clear: the smoke itself is not what we're after. We want the fire. Smoke is simply a symptom of that fire, a kind of information or a clue that reveals what we need to know about our target. We never mistake smoke for fire.
So what do I mean when I tell you, "Follow the smoke"? Simply that as a leader, you not only need to remain alert to the unique kinds of smoke you'll encounter in your business or organization, but you need to remember not to mistake that smoke for the fire. The smoke is only a clue. Remember that and let it lead you to the underlying issues.
For example, say that you discover that your people are hiding information from you. Now, by itself this may seem like a problem. But it's really just a symptom of a more fundamental issue. In other words, it's smoke.
Some managers might settle for fighting the smoke, either by ordering their people to keep them in the loop or by trying to impose some new process designed to free up information. But great leaders know better than to fight the smoke. They follow it, trying to find the fire-the underlying problem. They probe, investigate, and question. They try to figure out if people are hiding information because (a) they're afraid they'll be punished for their candor (the "killing the messenger" effect) or (b) they don't understand the importance of sharing information or (c) they're trying to cover up their own errors. Once these leaders discover the true issue, they can nip the whole thing in the bud. They know that had they settled for fighting the smoke, it would be only a matter of time before another problem, caused by the same unaddressed, underlying issues, took its place.
Following the smoke means not settling for what's right in front of you. It means uncovering and embracing what's really going on, no matter how painful that may be. It means not allowing fear, bias, or ambition to blind you to the real issues in your organization or industry.