What Teams Do

When teams achieve synergy, they bring out the best in their members’ performance, creativity, and enthusiasm.

Photo by Tim Olk

Photo by Tim Olk

Do you encourage teamwork? How open are you to suggestions for improvement from team members?

Micromanagement Can Create Zombie Firefighters [Article]

My latest article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Leadership must keep firefighters thinking instead of turning them into brain-dead followers

By Billy Schmidt
Published Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

Zombies seem to be all the rage these days. Becoming popular with the 1968 horror film “Night of the Living Dead,” today we find these characters in various books, films, TV shows and video games. Beyond the walking dead, the term “zombie” is also used to describe a person who is unaware of their surroundings—someone unable to think for themselves. They are ambulant but require outside direction.

So what do zombies have to do with leadership in the fire service? The next question should offer a clue. Can micromanagement create firefighting zombies? The answer is yes, and here’s why.

Management Theory
One of the most important functions a fire officer has is management. I read an article a few years ago that described this important function as X = -Y (see graph). X represents the level of firefighter brain use, ranging from “brainless zombie firefighters” to “thinking responsible firefighters.” And Y represents the degree of management provided by the fire officer, varying from “allowing full autonomy” to “micromanaging every detail.” So the obvious point here (unless you too are a zombie) is that the more you micromanage your firefighters, the less they will use their brains, making it more likely that they will become “zombies.”

Ask any fire officer which they prefer: thinking firefighters or mindless zombies who respond only as directed? The answers would most likely be, “I want smart firefighters who can think and adapt to any situation, firefighters with initiative who perform safely and effectively without detailed direction.” Then ask those same fire officers what their management style is, and none of them will admit that they’re micromanagers.

Now, ask any firefighter which they prefer: an officer who empowers them through trust and responsibility, or a control freak who second-guesses everything they do? Again, the most likely answer will be, “I want an officer who believes in me and helps me grow.” Then ask those firefighters what they really think about micromanagers.

Micromanagement Symptoms
Do you work for a micromanager? Are you a micromanager? What causes someone to act this way? Most micromanagers are driven by one, or all, of the following issues:

  1. Micromanagers are insecure.A lack of personal confidence can be devastating to a fire officer. Under the stressful and strenuous conditions of the fireground, firefighters demand that their officers be competent. No amount of “badge authority” is likely to command respect or obedience in complex and dangerous situations where lives are at risk.
  2. Micromanagers cannot handle workplace instability or pressures.Again, insecure officers quickly fall prey to the stress and pressure to meet the daily performance demands of their firefighters, including training, responding to calls and just plain getting along with each other.
  3. Micromanagers think they can do it better.These fire officers believe that no one can do it better than them. They have to make every decision, take a lead role in every task and, in some cases, dictate every step a firefighter takes.
  4. Micromanagers don’t trust anyone.This fire officer has studied and practices Douglas McGregor’s Theory X that assumes that all firefighters are inherently lazy and will avoid work whenever they can. They believe that they have to keep a close eye on their firefighters because they can’t be trusted.

Micromanagement Cures
So, does that sound like you? Or, does it sound like the person you work for? If it does, here are some things you can do to change that.

If you are a micromanager:

  • Admit it! Then start to deal with the micromanaging forces that drive you to control everything.
  • Strengthen your confidence by becoming more competent. High-risk situations demand competent officers.
  • Believe in your firefighters and trust them. Build relationships by rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty work with them.
  • Invest in your firefighters’ training and help them learn to make the decisions or do the tasks that need to get done.
  • Stop treating your firefighters like zombies, because if that’s how you treat them, that’s what you’ll get. Take some risks and give them a chance to prove what they can do. Help them grow.

If you work for a micromanager:

  • Learn to speak up. Help your officer delegate more effectively by prompting them to give you all of their expectations up front.
  • Make sure to communicate with your officer regularly. This will discourage their need to constantly come to you for details.
  • Remember, your officer is human and changing micromanaging habits is difficult. Help them.

Final Thought
Anyone who has been in the fire service for any length of time has been exposed to some form of micromanagement. Micromanaging is immediately recognized by firefighters. Officers who micromanage inhibit firefighter development, restrict organizational growth and turn firefighters into zombies.

Finding the appropriate balance between directing, delegating and doing is one of the many challenges for fire officers today. The goal is not to create mindless zombie firefighters, but to grow adaptable, thinking leaders. The message is simple: Don’t be afraid to manage, but know how, when and where to do it.

Related sources:
Gallo, A. (September 22, 2011). Stop Being Micromanaged. InHarvard Business Review. Retrieved November 2012, from http://hbr.org.

Murnighan, J. (August 25, 2012). Micro managers: Learn to trust your people. In CNN Opinion. Retrieved November 2012, from http://www.cnn.com.

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

Are you a recovering micromanager? How did you recover? Have you worked for a micromanager? How did you handle it?

The Advantage [Book Notes]

A few book notes from Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business.

After reading this book, I realized it really is a behavioral problem!

The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it.

A healthy organization sets you apart. Here’s what you need to build a healthy organization:

  1. Build a cohesive leadership team
    1. Should be the right size (3 to 10 people) to be effective.
    2. Team members must trust each other.
    3. The team leaves meetings with clear, active, and specific agreements and decisions.
    4. Team members hold each other accountable.
    5. Team members are focused on team number one (the larger organization, not just their department).
  2. Create clarity
    1. Team members know why they exist.
    2. Team members have clarified and embraced a specific set of behavioral values.
    3. Team members know what they do and who does what.
    4. Team members understand each other’s roles and responsibilities.
  3. Over-communicate clarity
    1. Team members leave meetings with clear and specific agreements about what to communicate to their people.
    2. Team members can clearly articulate the organization’s reason of existence, values, and goals.
  4. Reinforce clarity
    1. Managers throughout the organization have a simple, consistent, and non-bureaucratic system for setting goals and reviewing progress.
    2. Compensation and reward systems are built around the values and goals of the organization.
The impact of organizational health goes far beyond the walls of a company, extending to customers and vendors, even spouses and children.
At the end of the day, at the end of our careers, when we look back at the many initiatives that we poured ourselves into, few other activities will seem more worthy of our effort and more impactful on the lives of others, tan making our organizations healthy.

Does your organization have a cohesive leadership team? Do they create, over-communicate, and reinforce clarity? What can you do to improve the health of your organization?

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this page are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Leadership Arithmetic

[from Col. Malone’s book, Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach]

Leaders should be doing one of two things:

  1. Leading soldiers (firefighters) and small units (companies) during battle
  2. Preparing soldiers (firefighters) and small units (companies) before battle

Here’s the formula:

  • Individual Skill x Will to Learn = INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE
  • Thinking Individuals x Individual Skill x Will x Drill = LIVES SAVED AND PROPERTY PROTECTED

Decision Making in Critical Situations

My September 2011 column at Fire Rescue Magazine on FirefighterNation:

Decision-Making on the Fireground

Understanding how decisions are made is the first step in improving their effectiveness


Critical situations require quick, deliberate and goal-oriented thinking.

Critical situations require quick, deliberate and goal-oriented thinking.


By Billy Schmidt
Published Friday, September 16, 2011

It was early in the morning and we were responding to a fire in a heavily occupied apartment building. Dispatch had received several phone calls indicating that people were still trying to get out of their apartments. I was the officer sitting in the right front seat of Engine 33, where I could see the black column of smoke rising in the distance. I started thinking about the building we were responding to and what we were going to do when we got there.

Read the rest of the column here.

More of Billy Schmidt’s Firefighting-360 Column at FirefighterNation.

Speaking Up!


Photo by Tim Olk

Photo by Tim Olk

Leaders should build teams with people who have a proven willingness to speak their mind.

I love this quote from the latest On Leadership at the Washington Post: “If you have a yes-man working for you, one of you is redundant” (Avis CEO Barry Rand).

Decision making for organizations operating in complex and chaotic conditions emphasizes the importance of upward communication and dissenting opinions to arrive at sound strategic solutions. Most times the unwillingness to speak up is to blame for a failed objective; sometimes those failed objectives cause injury or death. It’s easy to believe we are leaders when everyone around us agrees with everything we say. Because a diverse set of opinions, and sometimes disagreement, are crucial for good decision making, we need strong leaders and followers who are willing to speak up, and then we need to listen to them.

How do we build teams with open communication lines in all directions? I’ll bet TRUST would help.

Read Saying no to ‘yes-men from’ On Leadership here.

Build a Relationship and Trust Will Come

Photo by Tim Olk

Photo by Tim Olk

Trust. You know when you have it, and you know when you don’t. How do we define trust in a team or an organization? How do we build it, and then maintain it? Trust is more important today because of the rapidly changing and challenging world we live in.

Trust creates opportunity. It promotes effective communication, increases motivation, and creates synergy (1+1>2) in teams and organizations that lead to safer and more effective actions. Everything is easier when teams and organizations have trust.

Real trust allows for a state of readiness in teams and organizations because members experience a sense of safety and confidence in each other. Do you have trust on your team, in your organization? If yes, how can you strengthen and maintain it? If not, how do you build it?

Build a relationship first, and trust will come.

Of Related Interest:

Relationship Before Opportunity. Dan Rockwell, The Leadership Freak
How to Build (or Rebuild) Trust. Michael Hyatt, Intentional Leadership

Recommended Reading: Teamwork

Teamwork no longer implies working together physically but also virtually. Here’s three good reads on The Team:

Wildland Fire Leadership – Pulling the Team Together

…The time and effort a leader devotes up front in creating a well-functioning and cohesive team will pay off with great rewards in the end.

…We highlight the following topics regarding “Building the Team.”

  • Trust
  • Healthy conflict
  • Commitment
  • Peer Accountability
  • Team Results
  • Resilience

Steven Pressfield – The Warrior Sense of Humor

The warrior sense of humor is terse, dry – and dark. Its purpose is to deflect fear and to reinforce unity and cohesion.

… Another time, a band of Spartans arrived at a crossroads to find a party of frightened travelers. “You are lucky,” the travelers told them. “A gang of bandits was here just a few minutes ago.” “We’re not lucky,” said the Spartan leader. “They were.”

… Lastly, these remarks are inclusive. They’re about “us.” Whatever ordeal is coming, the company will undergo it together. Leonidas’s and Dienekes’s quips draw the individual out of his private terror and yoke him to the group.

Big Dog & Little Dog’s Performance Juxtaposition – Team Leadership

….A lack of leadership is often seen as a roadblock to a team’s performance.

….Rather than focusing on ineffective teams, Larson and LaFasto (1989) looked in the opposite direction by interviewing excellent teams to gain insights as to what enables them to function to a high degree. They came away with the following conclusions:

  • A clear elevating goal — they have a vision
  • Results driven structure — visions have a business goal
  • Competent team members with right number and mix
  • Unified commitment — they are a team, not a group
  • A collaborative climate — aligned towards a common purpose
  • High standards of excellence — they have group norms
  • Principled leadership — the central driver of excellence
  • External support — they have adequate resources