Eddie scaled the catwalk, looked back and heard a loud boom.
Out of nowhere, chemicals exploded. Workers scattered. Smoke clouded the first floor. And faster than a sow chews corn the blazing facility lit up the sleeping neighborhood. Local fire professionals trembled at the probability of a second and larger blast.
It was a bleak picture. Most folks panicked. Some shed tears.
Joe calmly sipped coffee two townships away. He had already put in a full day’s work. Serving his community that evening as their Volunteer Fire Chief, Joe diligently scanned his first responder radio for any sign of distress. Nothing showed in his immediate vicinity. But Joe instantly recognized the address of a rapidly burning building miles away. It was home to his corporate office.
Joe gave the signal and his unit sprang into action. When they arrived on the chaotic scene, Joe’s counterpart, a locally paid Fire Chief, promptly tossed in the towel. He shook his head and mumbled his regrets. His unit had decided to let the massive building burn to the ground. “It’s too late. The risk is too high,” he rationalized. Joe was stunned, but not deterred. Joe’s group offered to step up and take over. The first Chief sighed with relief and handed Joe the reins.
Joe’s team brought intensity and passion to the fight. Simply put – they cared! They cared enough to put every ounce of energy into making a difference. They fought hard on behalf of the 300 families who depended on this long time employer for a paycheck. Joe himself had invested almost a decade working for this world class roofing manufacturer. He wasn’t about to watch his dreams and his peers’ future go up in smoke. Joe had not yet begun to fight.
As you know, not every leader runs towards the flames.
Some leaders run from every smoking object they see. They spot a looming disaster and hightail it for the hills before they are singed. Or they quickly look for someone else to blame. Sometimes they duck their heads and pretend not to notice. Others ignite the torch. Not Joe.
Joe’s Legacy: Apply Courage, Judgment and Intellectual Stimulation!
Joe brought a different style of leadership to bear. He was a motivated steward with a steel resolve and an unrelenting passion to solve the problem. Instinctively, he interjected courage, judgment and intellectual stimulation into his steady stream of communication. It was his legacy.
#1 – Courage is an essential character trait for an extraordinary leader.
Real leaders are not afraid to take a stand regardless of the prevailing political winds. They view each dilemma (large or small) as a challenge that can be overcome. And when others wave the white flag in premature defeat, they pick up the banner and charge the hill.
Sure, there usually is personal risk involved when they verbalize a strong position. Courageous leaders balance the cost versus the potential rewards and take decisive action. Like Joe did.
#2 – Judgment is also crucial.
While the first Fire Chief arrived at the premature conclusion that the building itself wasn’t worth saving, he never considered the livelihoods and dependent households represented therein. He simply looked at the aged building and assumed it was not worth his unit’s efforts to stop the raging fire.
Furthermore, the first Chief never asked questions. He had no idea where the stockpile of chemicals was stored in the factory. He could have sought insight from Joe who knew the landscape well. Instead, he was quite willing to hand off the responsibility at his first and most opportune moment. When the fire was ultimately extinguished by Joe’s squad there was minimum damage. Of course it later became an embarrassment that the home town team had bailed out so early.
Great leaders get the facts, weigh the options and make the right decisions even when they are inconvenient. Courageous leaders exercise sound judgment and motivate their staff to think outside the box.
#3 – Intellectual stimulation is the ability to get peers to think about old problems in new ways.
Joe encouraged his guys with intellectually stimulating queries. He challenged his guys to find more rapid and direct ways to extinguish the flames. Joe’s approach identified and eliminated the ineffective fire fighting methodologies employed by the first unit on the site.
As usual, Joe’s guys loved the challenge of finding new ways to reposition each piece of their gear. They refined action items through the lens of clear-eyed judgment. Then they implemented a courageous solution that soon brought this escalating nightmare to a halt. No one was injured. The building was saved.
I saw Joe the Chief Operating Officer and Volunteer Fire Chief recently. He wasn’t fighting a building fire. He was waist deep in his day job and had just de-escalated another hazardous event. This one potentially threatened his direct reports at work.
As a student of great leaders, I had to ask Joe’s subordinates how Joe had handled the emergency situation. No surprise here! It was another classic story for their corporate history books. Once again, Joe calmly and courageously stepped forward in the midst of a costly error made by co-workers. He demonstrated clear judgment by surveying the situation to see if anyone was hurt. He never placed blame. He took charge and challenged his team to put together a creative plan to ensure it never happened again.
Are you an executive and a firefighter in your company?
Apply courage, judgment and intellectual stimulation!
Keith Martino is head of CMI, a global consultancy founded in 1999 that customizes leadership and sales development initiatives. Martino is the author of “Expect Leadership“, a series of leadership books – The Executive Edition, in Business, in Engineering, and in Technology. He has also published three sales handbooks, Get Results, Results Now, and “Selling to Americans“. After more than 20 years and numerous awards at FedEx, Xerox and Baxter Healthcare, Martino and his team provide world-class counsel and proven web-based tools that produce consistent results.