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firefighter fighting fire

Leadership: Fire-Spotting vs. Firefighting

Fighting the Fire

I live in beautiful – dry, drought-ridden, fire-scary – Southern California, where a terrifying “Fire Season” is as real to us as as Tornado or Hurricane Season is in many other places. We are very aware of, and thankful for our fabulous firefighters. And, so many, many times we hear how a tiny spark becomes a dangerous, property and life-destroying monster, and say, “Oh, how we wish someone had seen it sooner, when it was small!”

As we are considering our own personal growth and development as leaders, the issues of what we could call “fire-spotting” and “firefighting” behaviors become significant.

A transition takes place in everyone’s career when they move from focusing on a perspective which is transaction-oriented (firefighting) to one which is vision-oriented (fire-spotting). This happens when one is moving from being a successful functionary to being a successful leader. It is a transition that not everyone is able to make.

“Firefighting” Can Make Us Successful Early On

First, we need firefighters. In my area, we know that with absolute certainty. The behaviors are not bad. And the “firefighting” behaviors have often made us successful early on in our lives and careers. Those behaviors are protective, clear, assessable in the short term, and safety-oriented. Many are significant and important. They protect us from immediate danger, and ground us in our day-to-day functions.

It is easy to beat ourselves – or others – up about failures to become leaders, become strategic, become more states-personlike, etc. We often fail to recognize the significant success we have had by not doing those things in the past. Early on, we are typically rewarded for completing tasks and transactions, stepping up to “fire drills” and crises, being aggressive vs. assertive, and managing short-term work situations. We are punished for focusing on “pie-in-the-sky” vs. daily reality. Often, there are real fires to be put out, and the need for firefighters is genuine. This is part of the process to gain enough knowledge to find our own path.

“Fire-spotting” Makes Us Successful As We Learn and Grow

Once we have that knowledge, the “fire-spotting” behaviors then can make us true leaders, true visionaries, and truly-able to take advantage of our gifts. These behaviors see and stop issues before they happen, give higher level direction to tactical behaviors, direct the bigger picture, and build behaviors that direct the path to the future.

Transitioning Can Be Challenging

Conceptually, making this change is easy; practically, it can be challenging. It can be difficult to let go of behaviors that have made us successful in the past in order to do things that feel hazy, unpredictable, or without obvious “outcome.” To some people, being visionary feels like being irresponsible.

It is easy to see how we can be drawn into the seduction of past-based thinking and immediate problem-solving, as these make us feel safe. Our successes in those areas can give us a strong bias toward immediate, protective behavior – but possibly keep us unable to see a fabulous future and take on a true leadership role. Also, they keep us from asking hard questions about purpose and vision!

The Requirements of Transition

A successful transition from firefighting to fire-spotting requires the following things:

1) Releasing the satisfaction of short-term success.

Many people get great satisfaction from problem-solving. They end up being sucked into situations that are not the best use of their time and talents – because they can, because they are good at it (or better than others) – the responsibility issue – or because the accomplishment is visible, or because – perhaps worst of all – it is faster.

Ask: Is this the best and highest use of my time right now?

2) Focusing on “what to do” vs. “how to do it.”

“How” requires smaller-step thinking. It puts together a jigsaw puzzle, rather than creating the picture from which the puzzle is made. Each piece properly in place gives us satisfaction, and when we get to the end we have a pretty picture – that we ourselves didn’t necessarily create. A clean, empty page is much more challenging. The truth is, it’s easy to be lead astray by “checking off the boxes,” as our accomplishments are so clear, and forget to look at whether it’s the right list!

Ask: What is the greater purpose/bigger picture here – is what I am doing serving that?

3) Focusing on the not-yet-under-control

Vision requires driving into the smoke. Many people would prefer to stick with the known rather than take the risk of an accident. While the risk of moving may be real, a visionary mindset requires forward movement, even when it’s just inching along. Waiting misses danger. Waiting also misses opportunity. There is an old saying that “You can drive from California to New York at night, only seeing to the end of your headlights.”

Ask: What is possible to do right now that will move me closer to my goals?

4) Letting go of “stories,” and finding out reality

It is human nature to make up stories about things we don’t understand – “He probably did that because he hates me,” “They must be putting together a new plan,” etc. It is, unfortunately, often human nature to look for the worst-case story – and then to believe the story and react to it in a negative way: “He probably did that because he hates me, and since he hates me, I’m not going to give him the information he needs.” It is easier to believe our own stories than to take the risk and go find the truth.

Ask: Is this the truth, or a story I am making up?

5) Focusing on responsibility vs. blame

Looking at blame, fault, and the negative looks backwards, and often creates in people a feeling of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness creates self-satisfaction: “If I had been controlling this, this never would have happened….” Viewing other people negatively – putting them down, and blaming them – is a “cheap” way to raise one’s self up and feel more positive, without having to do anything differently. I often say self-righteousness is the strongest emotion we have – harder to let go of than love or hate. It causes people to focus on problems, the past, and gaps in others’ behaviors vs. their own – and is usually one of the “stories” we make up! Because it can be so satisfying to be “right,” we stay where we are. Blame is not useful, and doesn’t move us forward.

Ask: What do we need to do, and who is responsible for fixing this, and keeping problems from happening in the future? (Vs. “Who is to blame?”)

6) Concentrating on generating a sense of purpose vs. being liked or being successful

Leaders are lauded for vision, passion, fairness and drive above likeability. Helping people to see and appreciate a larger purpose – whether or not anyone is likeable – greatly increases the likelihood of actual, long-term, sustainable success. Also, a person with a passionate vision tends to be forgiven some of their personal mistakes when they are clear in making their purpose visible to others. Hearing that someone “stayed true to their dream” – their personal sense of passionate purpose – always engenders respect, even when a person appeared to have “failed,” or bruised some folks along the way.

Likeability can, and does, work as a short-term leadership technique, and most people prefer to work with people who are likeable. Likewise, the opposite side – the person who is incredibly aggressive about their own success – or who focuses on goals and success versus vision – often does succeed (we’ve all worked with such people). Then they blow up once the body count becomes too high, and become an excellent source of business for Executive Coaches!

Our paths become muddled when we try to make everyone happy – or when we focus on achievement versus purpose. We do this for many reasons – politics, a misguided sense of what it means to be a manager, lack of thinking around our own sense of purpose, or simply our personal natures.

We should instead work to make people understand, and participate in, our passionate vision. This issue is difficult for many people. To answer my question below, you must know what gives you joy and satisfaction. You must be able to answer value-driven questions – “What do I care about?” and “What do I think is important in my life?”

True leaders know the answers – really.

In the meantime, look at your own goals. Evaluate the larger purpose they will achieve – changing the company, helping people work better and more effectively together, becoming the best “x” in the world, creating a sustainable model for success, keeping your family safe, – even helping yourself and others live more joyful and purpose-full lives! (This is mine.) Then:

Ask: Has this person understood and appreciated their part in the larger purpose? Do they know how they will succeed when it succeeds?

Fire-Spotting Leadership


Future: The way things could be
Truth vs. Story
Overall Goals
“WHAT should we do?” vs. “How should we do it?”
Purpose: Joy & Passion!
Find new path
General direction


Functional management
Past: The way things have been
Story vs. Truth
Current Details
“HOW should we do it?” vs. “What should we do?”
Fire Drills: Danger!
Maintain safety
Clear rules

Thanks to Cathy Hawk and Gary Hawk of Clarity International (www.getclarity.com) for many of the ideas herein.

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Cynthia Burnham.