Every organization has its fires. You know - those big emergencies that pop up from time to time requiring our immediate attention. Maybe a product launch has gone off the rails. Or something’s broken. Or someone walked out the door at the worst possible moment.
And every organization has its firefighters. Some orgs have a whole team of firefighters and some orgs are made up entirely of nothing but firefighters. For those organizations, firefighting is a part of who they are.
We don’t like fires (or at least we say we don’t). Fires are scary. They cause chaos, unpredictability and each one could very well mean the end of us.
That’s why the people who extinguish the fires are organizational superheroes. When the fight is done, and the fire is out, everyone is pumped. Firefighting is thrilling, it’s exciting, it’s… addictive.
And like most things that are addictive, it ain’t good.
Because despite the good intensions of our heroic firefighters, nine times out of ten, we’re actually making the problem worse. The fire is just a symptom. When we congratulate ourselves for having put out yet another fire, we ignore the underlying structural problem that caused the fire in the first place.
If your house keeps catching on fire, you don’t just buy more fire extinguishers. You bring in an electrician to fix the underlying problem – faulty wiring. But for some reason, in organizations, and often in our private lives, we don’t do this. We keep fighting the fires. And we do it because on some level, it works for us, even though we know it’s bad for us.
Here’s how it goes.
Let’s say there’s a new product launching in three weeks. There’s a critical element that’s not working properly, and the project leader has just quit her job, so she can follow her true passion, base-jumping in Peru. The product can’t be late to market. This is a five-alarm fire.
And you’re the firefighter. Let's get to work.
First, you ask for and get all the resources you need. The best people, a bigger budget, and a freaking war room from which you can run the entire operation. Okay, it’s just Conference Room B, but for the next three weeks, we’re gonna call it the War Room.
Next, you get something even better than the war room. You get freedom. You get leeway. You get to run the show the way you’ve always wanted to. Because it’s an emergency, after all. We've got to do whatever it takes.
So yeah, you have to cut some corners, and product quality might not be as high as it could or should be, but you can fix that later. And yeah, the internal team wasn’t really up to par, I guess the base-jumper wasn’t that interested in training, so you have to outsource a lot of the work to get it done on time. And yeah, a couple other key organizational projects fell behind because you got all the people and money and the war room, but that’s not your problem.
And you get the job done. Fire extinguished.
You rock. You're a superhero.
And everybody knows it.
And then, you go back to your regular job. Where it’s boring. And you have no autonomy. And you can’t really get shit done. You're mortal again.
You know the underlying problem. The product team was ineffective and undertrained. There was significant scope creep from senior managers leading to more work than could be done in the time allotted. You should tell someone about that. It seems these are problems that can be solved.
But yet you don’t.
Why? Because you loved the fight.
And soon enough, the problems caused by the last launch – lower quality, outsourcing of expertise, scope creep, cause new problems and you’re off to the fight again.
What I’ve described is an archetypal system trap called Fixes that Fail. Fixes that Fail, i.e. firefighting, create a series of self-perpetuating problems. One fix begets the need for a new fix and so on. The organization retreats into reactive mode. And as a result, it becomes very short-sighted and ultimately unable to anticipate and respond to existential crises.
Such is the life of an addict.
So what’s going on? How can we become addicted to something so inherently bad?
In the tradition of coaching I practice, we believe that anything that meets three or more of our six basic human needs, will become an addiction for us.
The Six Human Needs are:
Certainty (comfort, security, safety)
Uncertainty (variety, excitement, risk)
Significance (to know that you matter, to feel validated)
Love and Connection (to feel loved, to feel a part of something)
Growth (to expand your knowledge, capabilities and spirit)
Contribution (to give back to the world)
Let’s see how being a firefighter stacks up against the needs.
Certainty – Definitely not. There’s nothing comfortable or safe about being a firefighter.
Uncertainty – Oh yeah! If your day-job is boring, there’s nothing like a little excitement in your life. Anything can happen in a firefight.
Significance – Yup. The firefighter is the centre of everything. People will move mountains to help the firefighter get her job done. She gets the most and the best resources, she gets a freaking war room for god’s sake. And when the fire is out, she’s a superhero. And everyone tells her how awesome she is.
Love and connection – You bet. There’s nothing like the bonding of a team that’s fighting a fire. They pull together, work long hours, maybe there’s even a little gallows humour to get them through the tough bits. It feels pretty good.
Growth – Absolutely. Shedding the usual shackles of the organization’s bureaucracy to get the job done allows the firefighter to stretch in ways he never could in his normal job. Trial by fire is a real thing. And the firefighter comes out the other side stronger than ever.
Contribution – Hello! The firefighter has just saved everyone! The organization will survive to live another day!
That’s 5/6. So... pretty damn addictive.
But there’s one other element at play. True, the firefighter may enjoy firefighting so much, they never bring the underlying problem to leadership’s attention, despite seeing it clearly. But what about that leadership? Why do they accept the firefighting scenario? Why do they keep implementing Fixes that Fail?
Well, that brings us back to our old friend Certainty. Solving the fundamental underlying problem is hard. And sometimes, it’s existential. And that makes us afraid. So we seek the comfort and immediacy of Fixes that Fail. Just like an addict reaching for a drink, a needle, a donut, a credit card, or a warm body.
This is a failure of leadership.
The solution is a matter of focus.
Step 1: Admit you have a problem. Any 12-Step Program alum can tell you this.
Step 2: Put some firefighters to work. But save your best people for the fundamental problem. The problem will be solved, and they will be happy and engaged.
Step 3: Solve the fundamental problem. Ask yourself - what is the common factor in all of these fires? Where are we lacking expertise, where are we under resourcing, where are we creating unrealistic expectations, etc.
Step 4: Commit to avoiding future firefighting situations. In other words, stay on the wagon.
This takes courage. Courage is the central building block at the heart of every Unstuck Leader. Courage of conviction. Courage to see the truth. And courage to face existential risk.
But if you do it right, you become a different kind of hero.
Learn more about how to become an Unstuck Leader.