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Direct, Indirect, Both

August 26, 2009

FireStreamFirefighters use many simply mnemonics or memory devices to capture and communicate essential elements of their complex jobs.  Of these, “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” is among the most enduring and memorable, closely followed by the slightly more cryptic but no less correct, “It takes GPMs to overcome BTUs.”

Both of these sayings serve to remind firefighters of something often overlooked in the heat and confusion of battle with their mortal enemy: Only overwhelming force will defeat an enemy like fire that has no motive or conscience; one that exists solely for its own sake.

Fires attack with ruthless intensity.  Firefighters often have no choice but to take a more nuanced approach not for the sake of the fire or even themselves, but rather for the sake of protecting the people and property in a fire’s path.  Firefighters, you see, have to have a conscience.  Their mission and motives must serve a higher purpose.

In those instances where people and property are at risk, firefighters must put preserving life and possessions ahead of extinguishing the fire.  Even when such circumstances are not a driving concern, their own safety and the efficiency with which they pursue their dangerous task requires them to act with purpose, poise, and precision.

In either case, the first in which they are protecting others and the second in which they are protecting themselves, an indirect attack which involves putting water not where the fire is, but where it wants to go is often required.  Cooling the upper layer of heated gases in a room full of burning furniture or soaking exposed goods in a warehouse makes it easier and safer to pursue the ultimate goal of extinguishing the fire.

Many organizational challenges present similar choices, not between winning and losing, but in how we go about achieving our goals.  A direct approach may achieve the objective, but not without producing unacceptable costs or casualties, including consequences for one’s reputation.

Just as an indirect approach is not about winning at all costs, neither is it about winning others over.  It is simply about avoiding decisions and actions that either alienate others by turning opponents into enduring enemies or placing your actions in opposition to accepted norms or values, sacrificing self-respect or credibility in the process.

A strong sense of values or morality requires us to consider not only our objectives, but also what makes them worthwhile in the first place.  More often than not we measure what really matters not in quantitative terms such as time or money spent but in qualitative terms like relationships, personal responsibility, and self-respect.

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