Thinking critically, acting decisively in the fire service

Mastering both skill sets makes for top-tier leaders


Two enduring characteristics of top-tier firefighters and fire officers are the abilities to think critically and act decisively. Together they are the cornerstones of legendary fire service leadership. These two skills are both buildable and perishable.

Thinking critically and acting decisively embodies competent, courageous leadership. Being decisive doesn't require critical thinking, and critical thinking doesn’t require decisiveness. However, the true talent lies in the synergistic effect of being able to do both, simultaneously.

The emergency response environment sometimes requires making decisions based on urgency with details concealed in ambiguity. The truly talented are those who can think critically and act decisively along a compressed timeline.

Being decisive doesn't require critical thinking, and critical thinking doesn’t require decisiveness. However, the true talent lies in the synergistic effect of being able to do both, simultaneously.
Being decisive doesn't require critical thinking, and critical thinking doesn’t require decisiveness. However, the true talent lies in the synergistic effect of being able to do both, simultaneously. (Photo/courtesy www.pccd.pa.gov)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have those who fall victim to what is colloquially referred to as “analysis paralysis.” This refers to situations in which an individual or group is unable to move forward with a decision as a result of overanalyzing data or overthinking a problem. But not making a decision (paralysis) is, in effect, making a decision.

Critical thinking and decisive action are complementary. In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman proposes that there is a dichotomy between modes of thought: "System 1" is fast, instinctive and emotional; "System 2" is slower, more deliberate and logical. The book delineates rational and non-rational motivations/triggers associated with each type of thinking process, and how they complement each other. This book is a must-have study for fire services leaders for reflection, and truly highlights the processes associated with both thinking critically and acting decisively.

Diving deeper, critical thinking is a competency that curbs our natural tendency to make assumptions. It provides a leader with expository information, thereby preventing the acceptance of information at face value and missing false information. Critical thinking provides organizational leaders the ability to think in a more structured manner and facilitates their ability to evaluate complex or conflicting information. It is characterized by strategic thinking, enhanced problem-solving abilities and reducing information into its most basic constituent parts.

DON’T BELIEVE THE MYTH – PRACTICE AND TRAIN INSTEAD

Those who are reluctant to train and practice the skills associated with thinking critically and acting decisively are relying on the “rise to the occasion” fable. Despite what we'd like to believe, people do not typically rise to the occasion. Rising to the occasion implies that some people do their best work under pressure.

The reality: Empirical studies show that this simply isn't true. In fact, in these moments, we typically sink to our lowest level of mastered skill. Complacent behavior is the enemy of critical thinking. As author and public speaker Malcolm Gladwell has said, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

To develop these skill sets, we need to flex the muscles that control them. We need to exercise both sides of our brains – the analytical left and logical thinking of the right side – to develop the best actionable course. To think critically, we must be creative, imaginative and daring. We cannot be bound by rigid thinking trapped by rules and regulations. This is venturing into (potentially) dangerous territory if the competencies of critical thinking and decisive action have not been mastered.

Often, in the administrative capacity, we are afforded the commodity of time. Decisions can happen after a cup of coffee. This is in stark contrast to the compressed timeline presented during an emergency response. Oftentimes in emergency situations, the effect of critical thinking and decisive action looks a lot like, as Gen. George S. Patton quipped, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Don’t confuse which environment you are operating in.

Critical thinking requires leaders to be reflective, considerate and contemplative, plus strategic, tactical and analytical. Those with highly developed critical-thinking skills resist the temptation to fall into the trap of  “ready, shoot, aim.” Exceptional leaders ask questions, evaluate all available information, and display empathy for those impacted by the decisions.

STRIVE FOR RESPONSIVENESS VS. REACTIONISM

Critical thinking and decisive action require our leaders to be responsive, not reactionary. Reactive behavior is the action taken without sufficient thought or planning. The need to act decisively may be taken as an excuse to resort to reactive behavior. It is one of the key causes of poor individual and leadership performance.

To elaborate further, effective performance requires responsiveness as opposed to reactivity. How do these differ? Responsiveness implies critical thinking that considers long- and short-term outcomes in the context of the situation at hand. Reactive behavior is immediate and without conscious thought, like a knee-jerk response. Reactive behavior is often driven by emotions.

The contrast of these two behaviors is captured in a quote from “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky when he described to his son the key to success in hockey. He says, “Skate to where the puck is going (responsive), not where it has been (reactionary).” Being responsive is a calculated, decisive action.

AVOID A ONE-WAY ROAD TO DISASTER

Acting decisively does not mean making quick or hasty decisions. A quick decision that attempts to narrow things down to black-and-white issues while ignoring the grey is problematic. The critical-thinking skills of more thoughtful leaders helps them evaluate the grey – difficult issues – and make a more meritorious decision.

According to Jane Benston’s article “Decisiveness. Why It’s Important for Leadership Credibility,” “A quick and well-thought through decision backed by logic, gut instinct and taking personal responsibility for whatever the outcome will be, can boost our professional standing in the eyes of those around us.”

Having one characteristic and not the other (i.e., being a decisive leader and not being a critical thinker) can have disastrous consequences. Inevitably, decisive leadership when not complemented with critical thinking can lead to unfortunate outcomes and long-term negative results. This leadership behavior will force the organization to find a new leader to clean up the mess or mitigate the disaster the “decisive” leader created.

Inexperienced leaders may not even have the capacity to know or an understanding of what is best for their organization or emergency scene but, regardless, may act in an attempt to appear decisive. If critical thinking presents data that contradicts a course of action, they ignore it or decide they don't care. They mumble to themselves, “If I ignore it, it will go away.” This is not an indictment of a leader's ability as much as it is an opportunity to grow. 

The unintentional consequence of decisiveness can lead to leadership fatigue, which can significantly impact an organization’s health and successful outcomes. Leadership fatigue is characterized by creating an organization of robots or sycophants, thereby impeding leadership growth and integrity. Critical thinking takes a back seat or is squashed because to do otherwise increases personal risk and criticism. The rank-and-file learns to keep quiet and worse yet, don't point out flashing red-lights or warnings for fear of reprisal. Organizational talent and the competence of the group diminishes reflexively to the impulses of the decisive “leader.”

QUESTION EVERYTHING TO EXPAND YOUR SKILLS

Critical thinking and decisive action should be prompted by asking these 10 critical questions:

  1. Is this an emergency (System 1) or administrative decision (System 2)?
  2. What are the consequences of this decision?
  3. What could be the unintended consequences of this decision?
  4. What prompted me to need to make a decision?
  5. What is the desired outcome, and who will be affected?
  6. What is the worst outcome that can result from this decision?
  7. What alternative actions and critical information would be beneficial?
  8. Who is lobbying for and who is lobbying against this decision?
  9. Is deciding not to decide – or delaying – a viable option?
  10. Finally, are you aware of your biases, interest and intellect as it relates to the ability to make the decision?

Humility over hubris

Critical thinking and decisive action require humility to triumph over hubris. Engaging in critical-thinking processes allows leaders to contemplate their own arguments and evaluate them against all available information. The humility of being able to question one’s own assumptions makes it possible to reconsider your position based on evolving information. Humility allows decisions to be made with curiosity and analytical discovery.

The fire service has some of the world's most powerful leadership potential of any profession. Thinking critically and acting decisively embodies the fire service leadership ethos and the ability to confidently stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others.

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