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10 Leadership Lessons from the Fireground

August 21, 2009


I started my career nearly 30 years ago as a firefighter.  Over the years, I have applied the lessons I learned on the fireground in many other assignments and jobs.  Recently, I have been reflecting on what these lessons say about effective leadership in the public sector broadly.  Over the next couple of weeks, I will expand on the following ten lessons:
  1. It’s the smoke not the fire that injures and kills most people.
  2. No two fires are alike.
  3. Effective ventilation makes it easier to see what’s going on so you can attack the fire safely.
  4. A direct attack puts the fire out, but an indirect approach cools things down and makes the job safer and easier; use both.
  5. Prepare for the unexpected and the unwanted, and keep reviewing your definitions of both conditions.
  6. Don’t forget the exposures.
  7. It’s not what you don’t know but rather what you think you know that usually gets you in trouble.
  8. Most of the time, bystanders and critics don’t know whether you’re doing a good job or a bad job.
  9. Be your own worst critic, but don’t forget to look at the things that worked well.
  10. When people criticize you, it’s usually because of how not what you did.

Each of these lessons has a literal and metaphorical meaning.  Firefighting is a dangerous and technically demanding occupation.  But it is also places its practitioners at the center of compelling human dramas that feature ambiguity, complexity, and high-stakes adaptive challenges.  These features also characterize many of the other activities and services performed by government and its agents.

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