It’s not rocket science, but organizing chaos does require critical thinking

Critical thinking and extreme leadership help fire service leaders manage teams and mitigate incidents


This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13 Fire Chief newsletter. Read the full briefing here and sign up for the Fire Chief newsletter to stay in the loop on leadership topics.

Firefighters operate in an environment of constant chaos, confusion, drama and crisis. As chaotic as it is, not everyone working or leading in this environment needs to be a business major or doctoral student to get through it. But being effective as chaos-solvers does require some critical thinking and extreme leadership.

It might sound cliché, but being successful in this business isn’t rocket science. Acknowledging that success is in the eye of the beholder, it is still important to recognize the leadership dynamics that many of us could improve upon. So while it isn’t rocket science, we do sometimes need to think in terms of critical analysis, which is not elementary school learning either.

Critical-thinking to evaluate the team

Successful leadership in the fire service will require complex analysis of problems on the fly, plus the ability of leaders to solve those problems in a dynamic and evolving environment. (Photo/Getty Images)
Successful leadership in the fire service will require complex analysis of problems on the fly, plus the ability of leaders to solve those problems in a dynamic and evolving environment. (Photo/Getty Images)

I trust by now that we all agree that leadership is not about friendship. A few friends along the way may be a bonus, but a swell of followers that includes burgeoning leaders will be the measure of your performance as a leader.

There are, however, some people who don’t want to be led. I have experienced them in every organization I’ve worked for in my career. Note: These are not the same people who don’t need to be led. You’ll see both in most organizations if you look. Let’s differentiate:

  • People who don’t need to be led: This firefighter or officer, EMT or paramedic has likely demonstrated productivity and efficiency in various roles throughout the organization for many years. They may or may not have taken promotional opportunities, but they’ve exceled at most training opportunities made available to them, likely initiating and paying for a good number themselves. They never have to be asked to participate. They’re always there, ready to dig in, offer suggestions for improvement or initiating positive projects on their own.
  • People who don’t want to be led: This firefighter or officer, EMT or paramedic is most likely a tenured employee (or volunteer). They likely have held a single role or been in a single place for a long time. They make take classes, but usually have the “nobody knows better than me” attitude in class. Don’t get me wrong, they probably have a lot of experience in the role they’ve focused on and likely have a lot to offer. The trick is how to pull that out of them, like it’s their idea, picking them to lead a training session or to participate in a project.

Successful leadership in the fire service will require complex analysis of problems on the fly, plus the ability of leaders to solve those problems in a dynamic and evolving environment. Figuring out the wants vs. needs people is one of those complex problems.

One of my primary tenants about leadership applies here: True leadership is about taking people where they need to be, which may not be where they want to be – or where they even knew they could ever go. Keep in mind that the need and the want aren’t always specific positions, places, people or things; sometimes they’re a simple concept or a complex set of circumstances.

Following are some of the abilities you’ll need to hone to be an effective critical-thinker in this process:

  • Understand the links and connections between ideas and concepts.
  • Determine and separate the importance and relevance of arguments and ideas.
  • Build and consider arguments against the realities presented.
  • Identify inconsistencies and errors in reasoning, and be prepared to consider alternatives.
  • Approach chaos in a consistently calm and systematic way.
  • Be able to reflect on the justification of their own assumptions, beliefs and values.

It has been my experience that if you’re a progressive leader doing all the right things for your community, then the ones who tried but truly don’t want to be led will wash out of your system one way or the other. Unfortunately, that usually leaves a bitter taste for that employee, who was likely an informal leader of other like-minded people. Consider it a loss, a failure, but better yet a lesson – and move on. Critical-thinkers will work to find the best possible outcome to situations that may have no perfect answer. Very few of the situations in which we find ourselves end up with nice pretty bows on top.

Take a look in the mirror

Before you find yourself constantly railing on all those who don’t want to be led, make sure you take a look in the proverbial mirror. New flash: NONE of us knows it all! How often do you take the time to reflect on your own progress and effectiveness while accepting what your team has to offer? Maybe it’s time to take that deep look at yourself and how your actions are meeting both your personal and organizational goals.

First and foremost, let’s be clear. Rarely, if ever, will you find a leader who can make everyone happy or make everyone a fan – including you. This brings us back to the idea that leadership isn’t about friendship. If I worried about making everyone happy, I’d still be sitting back on the proverbial Baltic Avenue. The measure of employee or volunteer happiness is important but does not automatically translate to production or effectiveness.

Bringing calm to chaos

Some questions to consider as you reflect on your own capabilities – and how they will impact your ability to lead:

  • Have you continuously taken advantage of training and development opportunities as well as certification and/or credentialing opportunities?
  • Has that been the end of your journey, or have you applied those lessons and benchmarks to further saturate yourself in continued development?
  • Does your department have a career (paid or volunteer) development plan?
  • What are you doing to prepare your departments people to be the next leaders in your organization and our service?

An important part of career development is growing the calm and confidence within both yourself and your organization. You should strive to become capable of teaching and talking with a calm authority – not arrogance, but credible and respected authority. The number one key to bringing calm to chaos is not bringing unorganized chaos to the game. Chaos cannot end up being an acronym for Chief Has Arrived On Scene.

Recognizing that much of the fire service world operates in a set of complex relationships, using the concepts of critical-thinking will help you develop your chaos-to-calm skills. Use these five steps to manage the chaos in your work – and your life:

  1. Relax: Simple to say, harder to implement. Breathe deeply. I used to tell young EMTs who were faced with the prospect of relaying bad news or dealing with young victims to remember that this isn’t your emergency. The people who call us depend on us during their darkest moments. The least we can do is to be calm when they need us to be.
  2. Focus: Shift your focus away from your feelings and issues and onto the issue you need to solve.
  3. Be clear: Provide clear, unambiguous direction and/or information. Speak clearly and slowly.
  4. Ask for help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help so you are best prepared for what’s ahead.
  5. Exude confidence: Never let them see you sweat. The key is to relax and fall back on your years of training, development and expertise. You’ve made it this far – you can do this!

Extreme leadership

Taking on a leadership position can be an inherently scary proposition for anyone who’s not prepared – personally and professionally. In the emergency service business, we have little time for fear or retrospective analysis. During those dynamic moments, we need people who are ready to make life-or-death decisions and live with the results – RIGHT NOW! This is extreme leadership.

You need to own your decisions and be prepared to justify your deviations. I routinely recognize one of those moments of extreme leadership in the actions of Worcester (Massachusetts) Fire Department District Chief Mike McNamee. On that dark day in December 1999 at the Cold Storage and Warehouse, Chief McNamee became larger than life, literally and metaphorically, when he used stretched out arms and legs in the doorway of the warehouse to prevent more firefighters from entering the structure. That single extreme leadership choice likely saved all of their lives. His decision was neither popular nor conventional – but it was the decision needed at the moment.

Extreme leaders face those moments of crisis head-on, every day, every time. They have the ability to make and own on-the-fly, high-impact decisions as needed. Further, they demonstrate a true love for what they do. They don’t operate in a reckless abandon; conversely, they operate with passion and confidence, just when you need it most.

In the book “Extreme Leadership,” retired Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin analyze common traits of extreme leaders and keys to extreme leadership. I believe the parallels of those listed below are on target for the fire service:

  1. Ownership: Leaders embrace extreme ownership. The ball is in their court, no questions, no excuses.
  2. No bad teams: There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. This exudes that concept that leadership is contagious and extreme leaders help transform others to get things done.
  3. Mission clarity: This is one of those places where critical-thinking comes to play – everyone on the team not only understands what needs to be done and knows how to do it, but more importantly, they understand the why.
  4. Humility: Extreme leaders put the mission ahead of their personal needs and ego.
  5. Act: Waiting to decide is a decision not made! [Read next: Crossing that bridge: Leadership requires action]
  6. Simplicity and clarity: Extreme leaders act on the simple decisions first and work to the complex ones later, recognizing that complex problems require complex plans.
  7. Prioritize and execute: Coupled with above, great leaders learn to prioritize and execute: “Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. The team will likely fail at each of those tasks. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute.”
  8. Decentralized command: Trust your crews to get the job done.
  9. Manage up and down: Work the entire chain of command.
  10. Personal discipline: A matter of personal will – the difference between good and exceptional.

Make a decision

In closing, I want to reiterate four simplicities that we’ve talked about today. First, this isn’t rocket science. While we certainly have some complex issues and face dramatic crisis on a routine basis, not everyone has to have an engineering degree to figure out how to solve complex problems. Learn, develop, relax and move on. This isn’t your emergency! Second, leadership isn’t about friendship. Leaders take people where they need to be. Third, there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. Lastly, bringing calm to chaos should preface every thought. Make a decision and OWN it! A decision delayed is a decision not made.

Editor’s note: What’s one piece of advice you would offer a new chief to set them on the path of extreme leadership?

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