5 Dangers of Fire-Drill Leadership

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“All hands on deck!”

“Emergency meeting!”

“Everyone into the conference room, PRONTO!”

These shrill calls can create tremendous urgency, even excitement in an organization. I call this “Fire Drill Leadership”. Everything seems like an emergency.

But the best leaders I’ve known keep these fire drills to a bare minimum. Because they know that, overdone, keeping such a shrill tone in the organization can lead to five severe consequences.

1. An actual emergency is not given proper urgency

This is a “never cry wolf” scenario at its worst. When everything is an emergency, eventually nothing is seen as an emergency.

2. The leader loses credibility

Teams count on the leader to distinguish between minor problems and a full-blown crisis. A leader not making those distinctions will eventually lose the team’s respect.

3. The organization loses focus

In an atmosphere of constant emergencies, teams will soon abandon the strategic plan. “After all,” the thinking will go, “Why bother with the plan when it will have to be abandoned during the next inevitable emergency?”

4. The culture becomes one of detachment and disengagement

I’ve seen this happen in several organizations. Teams simply can’t remain emotionally engaged when there is a seemingly constant state of panic in the air. For self-preservation people will simply tune out.

5. Roles become murky

When the team is following the gameplan, each person should know their assigned role. In an emergency state people tend to abandon their role in order to help resolve the latest crisis. When this happens the wheels of the organization can begin to turn very slowly and sluggishly.

You’ll never eliminate emergencies from your organization, nor should you. When a genuine crisis hits, the leader must be able to sound a genuine call to arms and “up” the level of urgency.

But remember- if you keep the culture of the team in a constant state of a fire drill, you will not only wear out your team, you will eventually wear out your leadership effectiveness.

And for you, that really could be a crisis.

the author

Scott Cochrane

Vice President- International, Willow Creek Association. Love Jesus, Nora, Adam & Robin, Amy, Dave & Willow and John, Fiona & Will. Lifelong learner.

7 comments

  1. Some licensing agencies require or mandate a certain amount of fire drills each year. The company must show documentation of such drills being held for inspection and licensing purposes.

  2. I completely agree with these points, well-written text, and attention-grabbing title. However, I was also dismayed by the headline because too many “leaders” don’t “lead” by exiting when a “real” fire drill is called, either because they are doing something too important, or because they want their staff not to give up one precious second of work time. This sets a terrible example. Bit by bit, employees feel they shouldn’t walk out and practice, because leaders will see it as skiving, and this puts their lives, and the lives of others in the building, at risk in the case of a fire. Doing a walk-out, in fact, not only prepares for a real fire or other emergency, but gives employees exercise and some additional oxygen to the brain so they return to their floor better able to do their daily tasks. Maybe we should do a follow-up reminder to leaders that “leading from the top” also means ensuring employee safety – from the top on out and supporting things like Health and Safety Committees, even if a workplace is technically too small in size to need one.

  3. John and Barb, I appreciate the comments. But we’re talking about different kinds of “fire drills”. My reference is metaphorical.

  4. Thanks Scott. If I spent more space on the unmetaphorical in my post, it was because I agreed completely with your metaphor. I have worked for a number of people that act exactly as you describe — on the ‘drop everything, it’s an emergency’ basis’, which you correctly identify as unproductive. What was paradoxical to me was that it was these same heads of organizations who didn’t make it a priority to ensure people followed “real” fire drills, potentially endangering lives physically as well as their businesses.

  5. What I find interesting is that some people took you literally even after reading the whole article. That could be the topic of a new article. Just a thought…..

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