Leadership Tactics: How Real Leaders Make Real Decisions

May 1, 2004
John J. Salka Jr. discusses a fire service leader’s responsibility for making effective and reliable decisions and how it can impact firefighting tactics and life-and-death situations.
Making effective and reliable decisions is a major responsibility for the leaders of any organization. For fire service leaders, this responsibility can affect not only important administrative issues, but it can impact firefighting tactics and life-and-death situations.

Your goal here is not to learn to make one or two good decisions, but to become a leader who consistently makes the right call. So you need a process that you can rely on to bring you to the optimal decision, again and again, no matter what the circumstances. In this article we’re going to explore in detail the phases of this process. It begins with gathering information about the kind of decision you’re faced with, then defining what the decision needs to accomplish and finally making sure the decision actually happens.

But before we dive in, let’s step back and think about the kind of decisions you should be focusing on. Too many leaders, particularly those with micromanaging tendencies, feel compelled to make every possible decision, large and small, that falls within their authority. While this may make them feel valiant and indispensable, the fact is they’re not only killing morale by making their people feel useless and inadequate, they’re also shortchanging themselves. The really important decisions get neglected while these leaders squander their attention on a thousand minor problems.

Effective leaders don’t make a truckload of decisions; instead, they focus on the few that make a difference. So here’s a simple test: if a decision can be made by someone beneath you, then that person should make it.

The following decision-making process is very flexible; it can be scaled up or down to fit just about any situation. It’s as effective for unique problems as it is for generic ones. Also, with only four steps, it’s incredibly simple to learn. This makes it the perfect thing for you to teach to your people, not only so they can use it in their own work, but also because it allows you to establish a common decision-making language. Study, remember and practice this process, and you’ll find that any problem, no matter how thorny, can be overcome using this same four-step prescription: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.

Observe. I cannot overemphasize the importance of gathering information, what I like to call “following the smoke,” so it should come as no surprise that our four-step decision-making process is going to kick off right there. The first step is not only about observation, but also all of the methods by which you can uncover reality and follow the smoke, including engaging your people in discussion, encouraging debate, teaching and questioning, market research and quantitative analysis. When I arrive at an incident, I not only look at how the fire is acting, what sort of building is involved and whether there’s any sign of people trapped inside, but I also deploy firefighters and officers into the building, to the roof and to all the exposures so I can benefit from their observations and expertise. At this stage what you want is to create a three-dimensional view of the problem; the more informed and nuanced your grasp of the fundamental issues, the more likely it is that your decision will be the right one. Orient. To orient yourself is to position yourself in relation to your surroundings. Used here, “orienting yourself” means evaluating the information you gathered during the observation phase in order to figure out where you are before your decision and where you want to be after your decision (whatever that may be) is carried out. This means you’ve got to ask yourself: What will it mean to solve this problem? What will have to happen in order for the solution or decision to be successful? The answers to those questions become the standards by which the effectiveness of your decision will be measured. The more precisely you orient yourself – i.e., the more exact your standards, the more likely it is that your decision will solve the problem it was meant to solve. For example, let’s say I’ve got a fire in a multiple dwelling, there are reports of people trapped on the fourth floor and the fire is in danger of extending to the building next door. OK, I have a decision to make here. But first I have to orient myself in this particular situation. How will I know when the problem has been resolved? What are the standards of action? Based on the information I’ve gathered and on my knowledge of the FDNY’s mission, my decision should be one that results in the rescue of those trapped citizens, the safe extraction of my firefighters and the containment of the fire itself. There are different ways I could go about meeting those standards of action, different strategies I could implement and tactics I could prescribe, but all of them will have to live up to the same standards in order to be considered “good” decisions. For example, if I put out the fire but the people die, then my decision will have failed to meet its standards of action and, all other things being equal, couldn’t be considered a good call on my part. We all hate to be “wrong,” but that doesn’t give you permission to shy away from putting these standards through the ringer. In fact, for those situations when you have the time, you should write down your standards so that you can really get your hands on them and examine them closely. Obviously, I am not talking about fireground problems here, but rather one of the many important decisions that you may have to make relating to personnel, training and other vital non-fireground issues. Accurate standards of action are the basis for a useful decision. If you don’t have enough information, or you misinterpret the information you do have, then you’ll end up with inappropriate, off-target standards – which is a wordy way of saying that this is why you have to continue following the smoke throughout the orientation phase as a way of double-checking the integrity of your first-round assumptions. Accurate and credible first-round assumptions are mandatory if you are going to proceed forward to a correct and viable solution. Attempting to solve a problem based on a false premise is doomed to failure. Decide. In this phase, you’ll come up with several possible options and then choose the one that has the best chance of satisfying your standards. Again, get your people’s input; use disagreement and dissent to shake their good ideas out of them; and ask them questions that will stimulate their imagination and inspire innovative solutions. However, once you’ve decided on a course of action, your people should understand that the time for disagreement is past. After I’ve consulted with the captain or lieutenant, and I tell an engine company to head to the third floor and knock down that fire, they go. Likewise, once you’ve made your final decision, commitment is your people’s only acceptable response. I don’t want to forget to tell you this, so here: you can also decide to do nothing. Sometimes, when the risks of action outweigh the benefits, inaction is a valid decision. Hazardous materials situations are often the scene where a decision is made to do nothing. Not nothing and leave, but nothing until more information is gathered and analyzed, so we don’t make a bad situation worse. Only when inaction will cause a situation to fall apart, or an opportunity to be lost, do you absolutely have to act. Act. But forgetting for a moment that you can decide to do nothing, most decisions are made because someone wants to make something happen. However, if you make a decision, but don’t take the steps necessary to make sure it gets implemented, then you haven’t really done anything, have you? To be of any use at all, decisions need to have some kind of impact on the situation or problem that they’re supposed to address. The process of making sure your decisions matter is called execution. Execution is a catch-all that takes in everything you might do in order to make sure a decision gets carried out. Remember, no decision is ever complete until you make someone accountable for its execution; clarify the intermediate objectives that need to be met; and specify when you should be updated on its progress. What do you have to do to make sure your decisions get executed? Execution starts with accountability. In other words, if you’re going to be an effective decision-maker, you need to make sure that someone has accepted the responsibility for making a particular decision happen. This might sound obvious, and I wouldn’t even mention it if we weren’t all guilty of doing just that, of making decisions without assigning or accepting accountability. Why do we do it? Maybe we’re reluctant to assign responsibility because we’re afraid that our people won’t rise to the occasion. Or maybe it’s because we know deep down that this particular decision is completely impractical or impossible, and that’s something we don’t want to face. Whatever the reason, it’s time we all got over it. Too many decisions fail because the decision-makers don’t know how to execute, and that’s not a good thing, because ineffectual execution builds cynicism and mistrust among employees and customers alike. You get to accountability through clear, simple and thorough communication. You start by designating someone to carry out the decision. Then you explain, as specifically as possible, what objectives that person needs to achieve. Define for him or her exactly what sort of outcome you’re expecting, but also set an appropriate number of intermediate objectives you can use to measure his or her progress. Any ambiguity here can have disastrous consequences, so make sure that your plan of execution answers the following questions: Who has to know about the decision? What is the desired outcome? Who is responsible for achieving this outcome? What resources are needed to achieve this outcome, and are those resources available? Here’s an example: You want all the firefighters in your department to be trained in rapid intervention tactics. You select the captain of each of the companies to carry out this decision. You fully explain what tactics you want taught and on what timetable. You give each captain a start date and an end date and ask that progress reports be forwarded to you with the number of firefighters that have completed the training each month, until the project is completed. Assuming you provide the captain with the proper tools, equipment, teaching aids and support personnel, this decision should be carried out like clockwork. One more thing your people should know is when to update you on their progress. Part of execution means continually comparing what’s really happening against what you expected to happen. You give yourself the chance to make these comparisons by setting intermediate objectives or milestones. These milestones are opportunities to check in with your people and see how things are going. Each one of them should mark some meaningful progress toward the final outcome: if you establish trivial or expedient milestones, or too many of them, your people will feel that you don’t trust them or have confidence in them; on the other hand, if they cover too much territory or there are too few of them, you may not be able to uncover a problem until it’s too late. I operated at a fire recently, a second alarm in a two-story commercial building. The companies had encountered heavy fire on the second floor and were attacking it, but to knock it down they needed some ventilation, meaning they needed someone to open up the roof for them. Venting a building, by cutting a hole in the roof or knocking out windows or doors, creates a convection effect and draws some of the heat and smoke out of the building, just like a chimney. It also provides an outlet for the pressure building up in the room, making it possible for an engine company to open a hose on the fire without the fire pushing back at them. I dispatched a company to the roof to assist the firefighters already on the roof, making sure that the officer checked in with me when he had finished cutting the vent. A few moments later, I got a call from the officer, saying that they’d completed the hole and were beginning to cut a trench. Now, a trench is a specific tactic we use to cut off a fire that’s spreading through a building. It’s almost like plowing a furrow into the roof, a three-foot wide, wall-to-wall firebreak. However, based on all the information I was receiving, including what I got from the officer on the roof himself, we didn’t need a trench, we just needed to enlarge the original vent. So that’s what I told him to do – stop working on the trench and enlarge the original vent hole. This is an example of how delegation needs to be used in combination with progress reports that give you the chance to intervene if you need to as I did here. In addition to making sure you get regular updates from your people, you should also venture out from behind your desk and take an in-person look at the results of your decisions. There’s no substitute for direct experience. The goal here is to arrive at an honest, warts-and-all appraisal of the execution effort. If you’re too busy to do this on a regular basis, then you should at least send someone that you trust to conduct an in-depth, pull-no-punches survey. In many ways, gathering feedback is a lot like what you did during the observation phase, except that in this case, you’re looking for information that will help you evaluate your own decision-making abilities. Decision-making as I’ve defined it in this article is more than simply making choices; it’s the process of creating new opportunities. We’ve seen the different ways in which you can draw on the information and insight of your people. We’ve examined the roles that intuition, initiative and timing play in the effectiveness of your decisions. In addition, throughout our study of this process, we’ve touched on several points where the links between our three commitments and the process of making decisions become more obvious. For example, a commitment to uncovering reality is important if you want to make good decisions. Also, by treating people like assets you’ll be more likely to evaluate and hire them in terms of how their qualities will help your organization, as opposed to how much they remind you of yourself or your friends. And you’ll find yourself turning to other leaders, both official and unofficial, whenever you need someone to take responsibility for executing an important decision. John J. Salka Jr. will present “The Truth About Fire Fatalities” and “Staying Oriented on the Fireground” at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18. John J. Salka Jr., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 25-year veteran and a battalion chief with FDNY and the commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. In addition to his field duties, Salka has instructed at several FDNY training programs, including the department’s Probationary Firefighters School, Captains Management Program and Battalion Chiefs Command Course. He conducts training programs at both national and local conferences and has been recognized for his firefighter survival course “Get Out Alive.” Salka is the author of many articles, has co-authored the FDNY Engine Company Operations manual and has written the new book Forged In Fire: Leadership Lessons of the FDNY. He also operates Fire Command Training (www.firecommandtraining.com), a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm that specializes in a wide array of emergency services subjects, including tactics, operations, leadership and officer development.

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