Putting out Fires – Leadership Lessons from My Son the Submariner

040917-N-0000X-001I was talking with a client who recently moved to an international assignment. He is an experienced executive with earlier international experience but the tone in his voice alerted me to the fact he faced an unexpected level of adversity in his new move.  He started our conversation by saying, “This has been three weeks of hell. All I have done the last three weeks is put out fires, and it is exhausting.” What kind of “fires” do leaders face? Common “fires” include:

  1. Rumors that undermine staff morale and productivity.
  2. Deliberate reputation hack jobs by competitors designed to undermine customer and stakeholder confidence.
  3. Revenue crises i.e., sudden drops in sales or donor gifts.
  4. Political crises that threaten market stability and employee safety (especially threatening and uncertain in countries facing military coups).
  5. Unexpected loss of key people.
  6. Surprise audits.
  7. Innovation breakthroughs by competitors.

In my experience there are three kinds of “fire-fighting” leaders. The first two are damaging to an organization. The third is the ideal because they reduce damage while maintaining productivity.

The first is the frantic leader. This is usually a new and inexperienced leader who expected everything to work without a glitch. This young/inexperienced leader is the most dangerous to an organization because their own panic in the face of crisis leads them to freeze or withdraw at a time that their presence and clear-headed perspective is most needed by employees and stakeholders looking for reassurance that the crisis is not fatal.  The frantic leader needs to understand that fires happen – they will occur and because of this reality contingency plans for dealing with fires must be in place.

The second is the distracted leader. This leader puts all their energy into extinguishing the fire and finding its source. The distracted leader is also dangerous to the organization. The distracted leader is aware of the potential for “fire” however, they have not put response mechanism in place. Because they focus their attention on the fire they temporarily suspend leadership activity needed to keep the organization on the right course in the midst of the fire. The organization becomes distracted and may fail to produce or pay attention to its stakeholders.

The third leader is the captain.  The captain knows fires happen and that they threaten the mission critical activities of their employees and organization.  Because of this the captain puts in place the response mechanisms needed to address the fire while continuing to manage the operational necessities that keep the organization productive and strategic.  The captain knows his vessel, he has response mechanisms and people in place and he directs their response. He is confident in their ability because he has trained and drilled his team to refine their skills.

Here is where my son’s stories of being a submariner kick in. As we talked about life aboard a submarine during his Navy days I walked away with two important insights. First, everyone is a fire fighter on board any kind of marine vessel.  Even on my visit to his submarine on parent’s day we were given instruction on what to do in case of fire.  We were instructed on where to go, what equipment to use, how to use it, and then we practiced using it. Everyone on board is trained to respond to fire. Second, a fighting vessel cannot afford to drop its operational functions to respond to a crisis.  It has to be able to maintain a dual focus of mission completion and crisis intervention. If a fire occur those at their duty stations remain attentive to their jobs, those off duty become fire fighters.

The application to leadership is important. On a submarine this dual focus is the subject of repeated drills. I observed the captain run several drills while aboard my son’s submarine. Practice, practice, practice so that when emergency situations arise people respond with discipline and not panic. The captain was attentive to multiple layers of activity.

My friend while an experienced executive is developing new capacity as a leader.  He has moved beyond the frantic leader model to the distracted leader model and to his credit he realizes that he cannot afford to be distracted.  As we talked his vision of being a captain emerged and I am confident that his current crisis will teach him what his organization needs to manage fire while completing their mission.

What kind of leader are you?  The question is really one of capacity i.e., the power to grasp and analyze ideas and cope with problems.  Does your organization have the mechanisms in place to respond to different kinds of “fires”?  Do your people know how to respond (or defer response) in the face of crises? Do you lead from the front in the face of “fire” or are you frantic or distracted.  Think through the “fires” your organization has faced in the past. What needs to be in place to find the nature of the “fire” and what needs to be in place to address it?

For example: in one company I worked with we set up social media monitoring to catch customer disappointment or complaints as soon as they appear. We drew up an action map to guide an immediate response to any complaint or disappointment. We drew up an action map for follow-up and designated specific follow-up by department. In another company I worked with I helped them create a legal response team to work with clients, state and federal compliance, and internal management. This team went into action when any of our employees inadvertently or deliberately violated state or federal law (sounds odd but in that industry the quick pace, high demand and tight regulatory boundaries made such infractions a distinct possibility). In this situation too we define action maps; we drilled people on their roles, responsibilities, and follow-up procedures. We moved from a frantic reaction to a disciplined response that not only reduced the damage but created an organizational culture that was more contentious about compliance and productivity.

How do you deal with “fires” as a leader?