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Coffee break Bulletin

Striking while the iron is hot

Posted: July 17, 2017

This Coffee Break Bulletin explains how the exercise of leadership in times of urgency, demand and need can lead to previously sought after change.

For a number of years, a metropolitan fire agency operating in an extensive wildland urban interface desperately tried to get permission for a helicopter program. Well-researched efforts supported by big data fell on deaf ears of government leaders. They simply didn’t value the pre-emptive measures, which an active air program could bring, until a massive fire left over 375 homes destroyed and a community in ashes.

The fire agency, sadly at the expense of the community, was handed an opportunity. While the community was hurting, a sense of urgency, need and demand arose from the ashes. These three elements are often required to move individuals or organizations past their reservations and fear of the unknown. Urgency and crisis often serve to highlight the value formerly cast aside as not needed or perhaps seen as redundant during normal times.

Urgency, need and demand serve as catalysts for a leader who understands the need for a new reality but struggles with the normal processes and challenges of change. Resistance to something new or changed is not a new concept. Often, need is not appreciated until it is too late. In the example above, the need was realized when the strategy of reliance on air resources belonging to others failed because they were deployed elsewhere. They were not coming and homes burned.

Through the diminishing smoke and visuals of neighborhoods in ruin, a need was recognized and public demand became widespread. The need for a new reality gained clarity and a voice in the community. Community leadership felt the sense of urgency. It was, in fact, a hot iron. The fire agency was able to use the catalysts of urgency, need and demand to project a new reality and bring it to fruition. Today, the agency has a robust air operations program, and while not all fires have been without losses, the number of homes and lives saved is significant.

The moral of this story is the exercise of leadership often requires striking while the sense of urgency and the voices of demand highlight the need. It is often not at a convenient time, but we are not in the business of operating only when it is convenient. Exercise proactive leadership and be prepared to strike when opportunity presents itself.

Action step for becoming a proactive leader

The National Fire Academy’s (NFA) Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program provides senior fire officers with a broad perspective on various facets of fire and emergency services administration. The courses and accompanying research examine how to exercise leadership when dealing with difficult or unique problems within communities. Learn more about the EFO Program.

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