Fireproofing your Organization: Interview with Pete Havel

Who is Pete Havel?

Pete is a former political operative who has become an authority on workplace cultures and office politics. He is a keynote speaker, trainer, and consultant on workplace culture and organizational leadership.
Lately, he’s been focusing his efforts on teaching leaders and companies about the dangers of toxic environments and toxic employees. 
He’s the author of the Arsonist in the Office: Fire Proofing Your Life Against Toxic Co-Workers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures, which is an amazing book about what can happen when cultures go wrong.
As a leader or a future leader, you are not gonna want to miss this interview! 


JON: Tell us a little bit more about your background before you came into writing books.
PETE: I’ve spent most of my career in positions that probably disqualify me from being listened to by much of your audience, and that is I was a lobbyist.  I was paid, and I was good at reading people dealing with half answers, half-truths, no truths, and building relationships in very complicated circumstances. I would put the dysfunction of a legislative session or that crunch time during a political campaign up against some of the most bizarre atmospheres in the world, and I had done well in and had thought I had run into back about every type of difficult personality imaginable until I joined the firm and that’s what which are made to the author that I am today. 


JON: Who are these arsonists in the office? How do we recognize them? What are their effects on the organization? Who are these people?
PETE: They are people, and I guess let me tell it through the story in the book. I got hired and only going to work with the untouchable employee that had caused so much damage, so much strife, freaked the management out so much within the organization, words with false accusations and threatened lawsuits, and stirred up trouble that they had decided better to keep them inside the organization where we know what they’re doing than outside, and just worry about what they might do from there. An arsonist is somebody who has a little bit of power and then has the ability to take that power and use it against the organization, knowingly or unknowingly. They may just be wired differently than everybody else but arsonists, as defined in real life, are people that burn things down. That is motivated by wanting power to use against people, wanting revenge, profit motives — just wanting to see stuff burn. There are a lot of people in the workplace that are the same way. They like torching stuff either for the fun of it or to knock somebody out of a position or to get that promotion over somebody else or for revenge. You name it 

JON: There’s a leadership quote that says; “Leaders need to make sure everybody is rolling in the same direction,” and somebody added something to it which I thought was good it said, “…and they also have to make sure that there are no one drilling holes in the bottom of the boat” and the truth is that there are some people, for whatever reason that think it’s fun to drill holes in the bottom of the boat everybody’s trying to grow hard, and I think your experience clearly showed that.
PETE: It is, and you know what I talked about in the book so much is what happens when leaders, the people that are calling out those signals to the rowers, know that it’s happening in the signals that send when you’re seeing people sabotage the work of the organization.


JON: That’s what makes this book remarkable; you put this into a story.  I think it really stands out in my mind just seeing the way management dealt with a problem or didn’t deal with the problem. They just let the fire burn, and they ran instead of running towards the fire. They ran away from the fire, and they just let it burn out of control, and that’s probably one of the more exceptional things about this story because it’s a cautionary tale of what not to do as a leader when you have an employee like this.
PETE: That’s right, and you being in a contained atmosphere or somebody that was a commander of a submarine, you know that impact of what happens if you let the fire get out of control. This is kind of where my leadership was. There was going to be that temporary safety of ‘I’m not going to get burned by the situation,’ you let those fires go. There is not much room to hide. There’s no way I even have to deal with it, or it’s gonna consume you as well. And we’re seeing it now with so many things, like the Houston Astros and so many of the things that are in the news, where organizations let trouble start and leaders just kind of looking away.


JON: Just like the story of the fire in the submarine, it burns out of control instead of doing minor damage, it does major damage. It burns these companies to the ground essentially their reputation. I like the fact that you wrote it as a fictional story, and so you know you brought into the story of a man in this organization, and he’s dealing with this toxic coworker, and you intertwine the story the fictional story with actual lessons to be learned which I found really powerful. Why did you write the book that way, fictional, and then intertwined lessons like that I thought that was a really great way to tell the story.
PETE: What I did was fictionalized my story because I didn’t want it to be a tell-all within an organization that nobody cared about around the country, around the world. I got outside of my own life, but I had a powerful story to tell that as I told others, my cautionary experiences with friends, one-on-one, what had happened, I had a lot of people saying, “Pete, you ought to write a book about this”. Frankly, I thought that was a way to end the coffee meeting and, you know, just get me to move on with something, but as I thought more about it I had frankly had the perfect storm of a weakened management experience seeing the impact of what happens when an organization’s culture goes bad. So I very much wanted to tell my story because, as we know, whether it’s the Bible or TV or you name it, stories help people understand what happens. And I hear this a lot from folks that either review my book or send me a note online or anything like that; you’ve got to understand to fully understand what happens what a culture breaks down, you have to know the personal impact, and for me, I had my career knocked out from under me and I wanted people to know that this can happen to you yes leaders, this can happen to your company if you’re not careful. Because that self-preservation when you talk about it, people running away from the fire it’s an instinct, yes, but to run to the fire that you have to be trained in.


JON: I like the terminology you use, which is fireproofing in the organization. How do you prevent, or how do you deal with these kinds of situations that come up? I don’t want to get too much into the story because I really want them to get this book and to read it or also listen to it in audible. I think the audible book is really good, and you used different voices for the different characters.  The scene in the Chinese restaurant, in the early part of the story, and I don’t want to give away too much, but you have the antagonist, and her name in the book is Hazel,  and you have this scene in the Chinese restaurant which is amazing, it’s hard to believe when you’re reading the story you’re just like, “oh my goodness this is just a terrible situation” and I think you did a masterful job of putting the reader in your shoes and being in that meeting and I think that’s really great and powerful. And you talked about using a fictional story to to draw people in I think that scene alone, and I won’t reveal what happens in the scene, but I think that really brings people into the realization of what can happen to you when you least expect it. You had mentioned that you’d work with all sorts of different personality types, and just figured, well, I could work with this person as well but just remarkable, and I think that story, just that one scene illustrates how things can change instantly in an organization and with your relationship with a toxic employee 
PETE: No doubt! And what that illustrates, and again when other folks read it, if they like, what happened there was, I’ve been basically assigned to be cannon fodder for the untouchable employee. And my manager was afraid of this employee. Well, she’d come after her at one point. And to mitigate the situation, mix two chemicals together and see what happens, she said. ‘why don’t you two go out to lunch together?’  And this was the person who had filed; at that point, they had lost track of how many false complaints she had filed against people within the organization, and I was sent into the situation of either I defined my boss saying I need to go out to lunch with this person or I deal with the worst Human Resources nightmare they have all time. And you know no good winds are gonna come out of that situation if you’re mad, but it really points to that weak leadership that you don’t put anybody in this situation if you’re not willing to take on the situation.


JON: People need to read this book. That scene alone had my mouth wide open like ‘holy cow’. It just happened in an instant, and it can happen to any one of us in an instant, too, like that. I think it’s a powerful story. Read the book! You got to read the Chinese restaurant scene. In the story, the leadership knew there was a problem. They knew about Hazel. They knew she was toxic, but they didn’t take care of it. So what did leadership fail to do in your story? What was the problem with leadership when they had a toxic employee who was falsely accusing a lot of people, causing problems in the organization and just lighting fires? Does he see what will happen? What did they do wrong with leadership gets wrong in this case?
PETE:  Number one is that if you’ve got a problem you need to address it. Because fires don’t get better, Cancer doesn’t get better, a whole lot of things in life, if you leave them alone, are not going to get better. I’ve had a lot of people say to me after they read the book, ‘why didn’t they just write a check because it’s a financial issue?’ and the question is, what is your math equation when you’re writing that check or deciding to not write a check and keep somebody internal? and so many people just look at it as you’re paying off somebody for the salary, and we’re gonna weigh that salary cost versus the hit we might take from bringing somebody else in. So they just look at it as a trade-off for employees, but they don’t look at the financial impact. They don’t look beyond that because they don’t view the legal risk. Frankly, that could have come from me in terms of my experience there which went wheels off very quickly because of some actions that were taking place. They don’t look ahead to get traction and retention of good employees that what’s happening. Look at an organization that’s come off The Moorings in terms of their culture and says, ‘I don’t want to be in this place anymore’, their reputation gets hurt, and then productivity takes a nosedive. Those who want to stay, say thirty to forty percent, and then health care costs and whether it’s mental or physical,  those start going through the roof and you talk to companies that closely track medications, for instance, these days you can find out in the aggregate how much you’re paying for certain drugs from some of your health care providers, and you can see the spikes very different times a year for how much people are paying for high blood pressure medication for all sorts of things dealing with stress. And there are a lot of different things that companies don’t put into that equation, but the biggest one is if you know what the right thing is to do, figure out a way to do it. 


JON: I’ve written about this as well; when you have a problem employee, and leadership doesn’t address the issue, it affects the morale of all the good people in the organization. It affects everybody in the organization because they see a problem employee that nobody’s doing anything about, and so then, as you mentioned, morale good people leave,  people are having health issues because they’re stressed. When you don’t address a problem as a leader, then these things, just in the analogy, burn. It’s a fire that burns out of control. 
PETE: One other issue and I think great managerial theorists would call this the hold my beer theory, and that is you probably if your management style has let problems go, you probably got more than one problem out there. And your employees, that may kind of lean more towards hazel, looking for a little bit of trouble thinking I can cut a corner, or I can cut the whole side of something to get deals done, or you know to do all sorts of the unethical things. You’re opening Pandora’s box of all sorts of issues.


JON: It’s not good. You know I talk a lot about how “leadership matters”. Leadership does matter, and if you take an absent management position when you’re absent, you’re not taking action, things can get out of control pretty fast, and in your case, it wasn’t just you as all sorts of other employees had to deal with this particular individual, it’s because the leadership didn’t do their job. Unfortunately, toxic employees aren’t just fictional they’re not just in stories. This is real life, and it seems like we’re seeing a lot of it more and more in the news. You touched on a few of them earlier, but what are some recent stories that you’ve heard that show how important it is to get on top of toxic cultures or talk about toxic people maybe some things that have made the headlines lately that just show an example of where this isn’t just theoretical this is happening day in and day out with organizations 
PETE: Absolutely! I mentioned the Houston Astros. It all depends on who you believe in this story because you have a lot of people in cover mode on that, but you have an interview by now former manager AJ Hinch who traced all their problems back to an intern who came up with a cheating scheme. The intern put together a spreadsheet, and some other people found this spreadsheet to be something that they could use to signal when balls and strikes were coming in from the other team, and the manager, Hinch looked at this and decided that, well, it was okay because it was just nothing he could do, that there were too many people that thought that this was a good idea so here was a leader who is essentially trying to pass off now that he’s out of the job saying that any intern was the reason for all of this bad activity within the organization that is now has Little Leaguers refusing to wear their uniforms. And here’s a guy that was making literally millions of dollars a year and won a World Series but is now known and will be known for the rest of his life as a cheater and a guy who, whether it’s his version or anybody else’s version, watch stuff happen and did nothing literally. And now, the organization is in turmoil, their reputations down, and the owner saw that world championship trophy come to Houston and probably has a team that’s worth less than it was even a few months ago.


JON: So there’s a great example of where a leader didn’t do anything like where they knew something was wrong, but they didn’t take the action, which is very similar to your story, so it’s actually not leaders doing the wrong thing it’s them doing nothing when they see a problem or behavior that is potentially damaging, and they just let that fire just get bigger and bigger he didn’t take action against it right
PETE: That’s right, and I really think whether from a communication standpoint or from a managerial standpoint, I’m gonna get a little deep here, inaction is probably the most powerful action of all. If you get the sense that a leader is ducking on an issue, it hurts the respect of the leaders, and it shows essentially the pathway to a whole lot of trouble within the organization because you see your leaders flinch, and you find out that they don’t have the principles that you thought they had.


JON: Micromanagement is a problem, right? But I think a bigger problem is absent managers. People that just step away and let things happen, and things get out of control really quick when there’s no one keeping an eye, keeping the hand on the tiller, and making sure that the boats going in the right direction. They just let anything go, and the ships go, and they run aground. 
I wanted to get your take on what are some great characteristics of a great leader worth following? 
PETE: Well, for my topic of talking about culture and organizations, somebody that fully understands that they have superpowers that only people at their level of the organization can have. And that is being that example that they’re gonna set rules, and they’re gonna follow their own rule.  A leader needs to be somebody that is committed to, and you touch on this constantly, and I love it, that person that’s gonna know the names of the kids of the employees and the wives or husbands of your employees. And leadership, it’s a verb it’s an action word just because if you’re in leadership, you better be doing some action rather than sitting back and letting the action come to you 


JON: Leadership is an action word; it’s a verb. It’s to get things done not to sit back and let things happen. I’m pretty sure there’s gonna be an English teacher bashing me, I know, so I’m an engineer by training, so I have an excuse. 



  • An arsonist is somebody who has a little bit of power and then has the ability to take that power and use it against the organization, knowingly or unknowingly.
  • “Leaders need to make sure everybody is rolling in the same direction, and they also have to make sure that there are no one drilling holes in the bottom of the boat”
  • Leaders, if you’ve got a problem, you need to address it. When you have a problem employee, and leadership doesn’t address the issue, it affects the morale of all the good people in the organization. It’s a fire that burns out of control. 
  • When you’re an absent leader, you’re not taking action, things can get out of control pretty fast.
  • Inaction is probably the most powerful action of all.
  • Toxic employees aren’t just fictional. They happen in real life.


“Leadership is a verb, it’s an action word. When you’re in leadership, you better be doing some action rather than sitting back and letting the action come to you.” – PETE HAVEL


Links to Pete Havel:
Pete Havel on Twitter
Pete Havel on Instagram


Tweetable Phrases

Fireproofing your Organization: Interview with Pete Havel Click To Tweet Leadership is an action word; it's a verb. It's to get things done not to sit back and let things happen. Click To Tweet When you have a problem employee, and leadership doesn't address the issue, it affects the morale of all the good people in the organization. Click To Tweet Inaction is probably the most powerful action of all. Click To Tweet


Leadership Resources:

The Arsonist In The Office by Pete Havel
Be A Leader Worth Following: Grab A Copy Of My Books
I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following

All in the Same Boat

All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner

You Have the Watch: A Guided Journal to Become a Leader Worth Following


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