Leading Agile Like Firefighters

By Michael Hopke, MHO Consulting Germany

For firefighters, VUCA is not a new challenge, but a normal part of everyday life: the guard oscillates between boredom and professional haste at the sound of the alarm. The firefighters do not know what to expect when they are on duty. Sometimes, mission scenarios become very complex. And often the firefighters on site need to interpret confusing situations and make quick decisions. Despite these adversities, the fire brigades usually succeed in saving lives and limiting damage, for which they rightly deserve our recognition. What lessons should companies learn from this if they want, or have to, lead as agilely as the fire brigade?

Although, as a layman and outsider, I don’t have profound detailed knowledge. I believe I do recognize some basic success patterns that can be adapted to modern day business scenarios. So it’s likely that you can learn to be agile like a firefighter if the following conditions are met.

Creating clarity about goals

That might sound trivial and is certainly beyond doubt for the fire brigade. In the corporate world, however, it is precisely this clarity about corporate goals and strategies that is more often lacking especially across different hierarchical levels. It often becomes apparent that the management has developed visions and already believes in their implementation of which managers, and to a higher degree, employees only have a rudimentary understanding. This applies especially in relation to how this affects specific job duties and the workplace tasks. The fire brigade has the advantage here that “protecting oneself, saving lives and protecting property” has remained unchanged in this order for decades.

For the corporate world, the permanent topic of customer satisfaction may be the most important goal here especially if we review the recent hype surrounding the “Customer Journey”. Instead, is it perhaps rather competitiveness because competitors are already more agile? What about product innovations and sustainability? Only the people in your company can give the right answer. The most important thing is that everyone gives the same answer and that there is clarity about the goals.

Only professionals can act agilely

Leaders of emergency and rescue services in general have acquired their position through expertise and competence. They rely on an organisation in which communication is clear by means of technical language and in which every single move is mastered while asleep. This is the only way to react flexibly to changing challenges and to achieve the best possible result. Micro-Management is not necessary. This is because the squad leaders decide independently how they want to tackle the task at hand. They have trained again and again for this purpose and have continued their training on an ongoing basis.

What about the corporate world? The adjective “heterogeneous” probably comes closest to reality. It’s also clear that companies don’t have rest periods during which they can practice, train and try things out outside of their day-to-day business. Everything needs to be done in parallel to business operations and hence involves additional effort. This carries the danger that even such far-reaching changes during the development of an agile management culture are tackled as a one-off project with little time, limited resources and a limited number of participants to be trained. HR departments should actively counteract this trend and initiate long-term transformation processes. Specialist and leadership knowledge must no longer be restricted to elitist leadership circles but must be made accessible throughout the company. After the transfer of knowledge, the change of behaviour must be practised permanently. This initiative is not only the prerogative of the HR department, but of all managers and will take several years to accomplish and hence should therefore be anchored in the corporate strategy over the long term.

Agile doesn’t mean everyone is boss

Contrary to popular beliefs, not only the fire brigade but also the rescue services are strictly hierarchically organised systems. The tone is not as with the military, but the chain of command is nevertheless crystal clear. Discussions are unacceptable when it comes to seconds to react. On the other hand, social media and many publications sometimes give the impression that hierarchies in agile organizations are obsolete. Young workers are promised not only modernity but also autonomy in order to make the company appear attractive as an employer. Personally, I am not sure whether we are not fooling ourselves into making a fallacy and perhaps conducting a fictitious debate. Working independently and having a boss at the same time is not necessarily a contradiction in terms. Personal authority and collegial leadership have been practised successfully for a long time. Ultimately, it is the example of the fire brigade that proves that both topics have only a limited connection with each other. For this reason, the pursuit of a more agile corporate structure should not be additionally charged with a discussion about a more open management culture. Instead, it is better to tackle one topic at a time and above all invest in the training of all employees. Then it will be possible to lead as agilely as the fire brigade.

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