Leadership by lane: Are you driving in the fast, slow or center lane in your organization?

Center-lane leaders understand how to balance fast-lane fires and slow-lane public assist missions

You’ve been there, whizzing down the road, lights flashing and sirens blaring, coming up fast on that ONE car that won’t get out of your way.

You’re on a seven-lane road, three lanes in each direction and a reversible lane in between. You flash your lights, switch between yelp, warble, rumble – nothing. What do you do?

As leaders, we have a responsibility to get people and organizations where they need to be for the long term. Sometimes we get there from the fast lane, sometimes not. (Photo/Getty Images)
As leaders, we have a responsibility to get people and organizations where they need to be for the long term. Sometimes we get there from the fast lane, sometimes not. (Photo/Getty Images)

How about when you’re just out and about on that same road – no emergency. You’ve got 5 miles before you need to worry about any turns, and there’s not much traffic. Are you still driving in the left lane?

Your laws and mine are probably pretty similar, and guidance is generally the same – the left lane is the fast lane, the right lane is the slow lane, and the middle lane is what I’ll call the stable lane.

Leadership in the left lane

As leaders, we have a responsibility to get people and organizations where they need to be for the long term. Sometimes we get there from the fast lane, sometimes not.

I have yet to meet one long-term successful coach or chief who has ALWAYS been in the fast lane. Sure, I know many who bounce from one- and two-year chief jobs to the next, some with validated success derived from “fast-lane chief-ing.” You know them, too – everything is critical, everything must be fixed now, no one else knows how to do “it” any other way. Those are usually the ones with great personal resume success, but less systemic organizational success to back up the resume.

Always-full-throttle-left-lane leadership is rarely successful for the long term. As you speed along, sure, you’ll get somewhere, and you might accomplish a thing or two. You will have to decide whether independent and momentary successes are as good for the organization as they may be for your resume.

Long-lasting development and progress is built on a series of overlaid successes that come out of fast, center and slow lane ideas, topics and people. If everybody’s in the fast lane all the time, you’ll burn out sooner or later – just like the full-throttle engine going downhill approaching the sharp curve at the bottom – either you throttle down and adjust, or you’re destined to slam into a wall or suffer a series of rollovers as you try to recover at the last minute. Everything can’t be 100 mph all the time.

The firefighters who ALWAYS go to the roof, hell or high water – that’s the fast lane. “That’s what we always do!” the chief might say. Let’s ask Fresno (California) Captain Pete Dern about that one.

How about those who will blindly follow every firefighter into the abyss? That’s the fast lane. “But I’ve got to get them out!” a chief may declare. Let’s ask Worcester (Massachusetts) Fire Department District Chief Michael McNamee – the man who stood in the “center lane” to stop more firefighters from entering the building and inevitably dying – what he thinks about that approach.

With fast-lane-only leadership, personal success becomes more important than mission-focused organizational success.

Leadership in the right lane

Then there’s the slow-lane chief – usually the one most loved by budget-cutting hawks. Nothing is too important, the organization can survive with less, and the chief rarely comes out of the office.

To many in the organization, the slow-lane chief becomes a faded shadow figure behind the desk with the “road less traveled” becoming a cowpath of failed programs and indifference amongst the troops. Doing the bidding of the elected officials or the puppet-masters running things behind the scenes, the slow-lane chief might last a long time, yet rarely produces organizational growth and success. There are people in the organization TRYING to drive by in the fast lane, even the center lane, yet they keep getting pulled back, like the premature opening of the dragster parachute.

You’ve seen slow-lane-led departments – the ones that are rarely in the news for anything. Yet when they are in the news, it’s usually a catastrophe because staff leadership hasn’t come out of the slow lane in years. Suddenly, that bread-and-butter house fire with someone trapped becomes a fatal incident witnessed the world over.

Slow-lane departments teeter on the brink of maleficence in the simplest of mission basics. Slow-lane organizations tend to value the organization more than the mission.

Center-lane leadership

Learning the “lane leadership” dance is similar to the dance of politics.

There are progressives and conservatives, independents and team-players. It is similar to when you had to learn the difference between first and twelfth gear on a bicycle. As officers, we must learn the difference between coordinated strategic activity in the center lane versus independent left-lane and right-lane chaos.

Center-lane leaders not only understand the difference between full-throttle fast-lane fires or EMS incidents and geared-down public assist missions, but also understand how to manage the organizational needs from all lanes. Allowing fast-lane firefighters to sprint ahead and get the job done is important, as long as they understand your organizational limits. It will be equally difficult to corral the fast-lane fanatics as it is to lasso the slow-lane slugs.

Center-lane chiefs stand a better-than-average chance of sustained organizational growth and development. Center-lane chiefs value all of the constituent members and mission objectives, while balancing day to day organizational/political needs. Things don’t always get done fast, but they get done well.

It’s time to find the center lane, slow down just a bit and evaluate who else is around you and where you’re all going. Experiencing or representing the toxicity of fast- or slow-lane atmospheres can quickly erode organizational success. Finding your organizational balance in the center lane begins with understanding that it’s much less about “you” or “I”, and much more about “we” and “us.”

Sometimes the road less traveled should be traveled a little more.

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