How To Avoid Fire-Drill Leadership To Build Your Leadership Effectiveness

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If everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency.

The truth of this leadership axiom is lost on many leaders who seem to lurch their leadership, and their team, from one panic-riddled crisis to another.

I was once on a team led by such a leader. “All hands on deck!”, “Emergency meeting!” and  “Everyone into the conference room, PRONTO!” were almost standing orders, seemingly heard on a daily basis.

I call this “Fire Drill Leadership”. Everything seems like an emergency.

While these shrill calls can create tremendous urgency, even excitement in an organization, 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 game-plan, 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, Global Leadership Network. Love Jesus, Nora, Adam & Robin, Amy, Dave, Willow, Olive & Charlie and John, Fiona, Will & Harvey. Lifelong learner.


  1. The title of the article is How To Avoid Fire-Drill Leadership. The article defines what it looks like but nothing in the article provides insight on how to avoid this.

  2. As a former Fire Chief and now in City Management for the past 28 years, I’d say the fire drill analogy is very apt. In responding to question over the years about how I made the transition from the FD to being a CM, I had two things to say. Good and effective leadership translates and transfers no matter where you are. And secondly, think about it, we are just putting out different fires. To me, the most important element in avoiding the fire drill mentality is a masterful understanding of and skill in using the organization’s processes. Fewer failures or errors in that arena eliminates double work and wasted effort and frees the leader to engage in actions and efforts of leadership. This is not a focus on processes as a salute to detail and minutia, but rather a proficient use of a management tool to enhance leadership opportunities.

  3. Terry, thank you for these insightful and very practical comments. “We are just putting out different fires” is so well said. I think your insight regarding an organization’s processes is particularly apt.

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