Effective Leadership: Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires

I was recently in a hotel conference center and watched several firefighters rush to the aid of a woman who had blacked out. Firefighters deserve everyone’s adoration. Firefighting in business, however, can become an addiction that deserves little respect, as it is self-absorbed behavior that rewards a lack of planning.

Remember the movie Backdraft where Robert Di Niro plays an arson investigator? If you haven’t seen it and plan to—even though the movie is from 1991—skip the next sentence. Di Niro’s character discovers that the mystery antagonist and arsonist is actually a fireman. Firefighters starting fires in the real world is perhaps a rarity, but in business, I have found that firefighters love to start fires.

I was asked to help a struggling business several years ago and spent the first day in absolute shock at the firefighting that went on. The CEO installed a loudspeaker in the office (remember school announcements when you were a kid?) and several times a day would call for everyone to drop what they were doing and run into his office to solve a problem. Had this been a monthly event or had the fires been unpredictable, this might have been healthy; however, in this business, it was the CEO’s way of getting an adrenaline rush and grandstanding. When he sold the company to a group of investors, they had little regard for his heroics.

Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. You clearly can’t plan for every contingency in a fast paced business, but if your vision and strategy are clear, you can avoid many of the 11th hour decisions that are often poorly made. In the immortal words of another famous warrior, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” (Smokey the Bear, 1944).


Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of, Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be(Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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