Leadership means Running Towards the Fire

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Courage is Being Scared to Death, but Saddling Up Anyway ~John Wayne

I’m a trained firefighter. Actually, I’m a U.S. Navy veteran who served on nuclear submarines which means I have been trained to fight fires. It’s probably no surprise that a fire on a submarine is one of the most dangerous things that could ever happen on board. Smoke can quickly fill compartments and asphyxiate sailors. The heat and flames can spread to weapons, volatile materials, and critical systems creating catastrophic damage. A fire can quickly destroy a submarine if not extinguished immediately. That’s why we were trained to ignore our natural instincts to move away from the fire and, instead, run towards the fire to put it out as quickly as possible.

Business is the same way. There are situations that can occur that, if not addressed immediately, can cause catastrophic damage. These might include a product failure, a customer complaint, a supplier quality issue, a change in the market landscape, new technology, an employee situation, or any number of challenges that businesses face each day. The problem is that people in businesses also have a natural tendency to move away from or ignore problems.

Take for example the recent announcement of the bankruptcy of Radio Shack. Joshua Brustein refers to it as a “slow-motion collapse” because the warning signs were all there but Radio Shack’s management team did little to attack the problems. They didn’t run towards the fire. The market had changed dramatically. Other companies, like Best Buy, were doing a better job solving technology issues for customers. Wal-Mart and other low-cost retailers now sold many of the components, wires, and connectors that only were available in the past from Radio Shack. Radio Shack became stuck in the past and reduced to only the last resort for customers who couldn’t get their problems solved somewhere else. As a result, stores were empty, employees sat idle, revenues fell, and their stock lost 99.6% of its value. On top of that, they hadn’t shown a profit in three years.

As leaders, we can’t allow this to happen to our businesses. It is critical we create a culture where leaders and employees run towards the fire. Like firefighters, our teams must be trained to ignore their natural instincts to move away from or avoid problems. The future of our organizations may depend on it. There are three simple ways to create an organizational culture that attacks problems head on:

Lead from the front. There are large problems facing your business that only you can solve: A major problem at a strategic customer, a change in the competitive landscape requiring a new strategy, a significant market shift, or a new technology introduction. Your employees will be looking to you to lead the effort to attack these issues with tenacity. How you respond to these challenges will set the tone for the rest of the organization.

Celebrate those that run to the fire. I tell my employees that, when it comes to priorities, they should always take care of the customer first. I have had the pleasure to receive dozen of calls and e-mails from customers who were extremely happy with how one our team members dealt with a problem. I always make a point to thank these employees personally and discuss it in staff meetings and town hall events. The employees who take a relentless approach to taking care of a problem before it gets out of control are to be celebrated.

Attack the fire while it’s still small. There is a universal truth about problems and fires. The longer it takes to attack them, the larger they get. Almost every significant issue that gets to senior management was a smaller problem that could have been resolved in the early stages. That’s one of the reasons I believe in having a strong set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure the performance of the business in real time. Negative trends in price, margin, product mix, customer satisfaction, quality, or on-time delivery can be quickly identified and addressed before they get too large.

I should also make another point about firefighting. I have also witnessed another extreme in business leadership with organizations that lacked structure and stable processes, where its employees were always putting out fires. Most of the management team simply moved from crisis to crisis. This is an unhealthy organizational situation and this is not the kind of firefighting I am referring to. It is the leader’s job to build a stable, smooth running business. Having to run to a fire should be the exception not the rule.

Ignoring or moving away from the problems that face your business can have catastrophic effects. We can see it play out with the bankruptcy of Radio Shack. As leaders, it is our responsibility to create a culture where employees resolve issues quickly. We can do this by leading from the front, celebrating those employees who live these values, and attacking problems before they get out of control. We need to teach our employees to ignore their natural instincts and move towards flames. The future of our organizations may depend on it.

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One thought on “Leadership means Running Towards the Fire

  1. Pingback: 10 Leadership Lessons I Learned Living on a Nuclear Submarine | Jon S Rennie

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