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Cornerstone: February 2014

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and exist at all levels within an organization. When I want to learn more about how to be a good leader, I look beyond the fire service.

February 10, 2014
By Lyle Quan


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Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and exist at all levels within an organization. When I want to learn more about how to be a good leader, I look beyond the fire service.

Don’t get me wrong; we have amazing leaders in the fire service and I have seen many new faces appear on the horizon, which tells me that the fire service is in good hands.

On this line of thought, the two books I am going to introduce are written from two different viewpoints, yet they share many similarities. The first is by the captain of a nuclear submarine who is trying to develop his people by breaking down old habits and creating some new synergies. In the second book, we learn from three leadership consultants who present a very interesting way of looking at the groups (or tribes, as they say) of people with whom we work.

In Turn the Ship Around: How to Create Leadership at Every Level, author L. David Marquet, a retired captain with the U.S. navy, describes an instance in which he attempted to take his underachieving submariners and transform them into a highly efficient team with a common goal.

A very interesting quote in the book that really caught my attention is from Albert Einstein: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” In other words if you are not willing to break out of the box in which you find yourself, then you are not going to be able to find the new path that you and your team need to take to find excellence.

The author ultimately gave control to his sailors (which is not the norm in the navy), and in doing so, he increased the team’s competence because each member became engaged in the team’s successes or failures. Marquet discusses such points as starting from the beginning and rebuilding, which, in some cases, is what it takes to lead the team you want.

In the second book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, authors Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright explain how we all appear to work in tribes, and that each of these tribes exists at different levels of efficiency.

I found this book very interesting because it helped to clarify how the captain in Turn the Ship Around started with a team/tribe that seemed to be stuck in the bottom levels of a five-level structure. The captain took that team and elevated it to a very respectable Level Four, which is where most successful organizations exist today. Very few achieve the fifth level, as this is where only the top-achieving organizations find themselves. But don’t fret – most of us are sitting at around Level Three. To give you an idea of what each level is:

  • Level One – At this stage, most people use terms such as “life sucks,” and they act accordingly. People at this level can be despairingly hostile, almost taking on a gang mentality.
  • Level Two – We are now at the “my life sucks” level; people are somewhat apathetic, and feel that they are victims of circumstance and that there is no way out. Unfortunately, this accounts for 25 per cent of workplace cultures.
  • Level Three – Forty-eight per cent of professionals in the United States are at this stage. At this level you hear comments such as “I’m great.” This is the zone of personal accomplishment, but also where the employee feels they are putting in more than they are getting out of the organization. . . sound familiar?
  • Level Four – This is the stage at which you are dealing with people who are ready to take on greater challenges and feel like they are being supported. At this level, you hear comments such as “We’re great.” People feel a strong sense of tribal pride in what they are doing. This is where the future leaders come from.
  • Level Five – “Life is great” at this level; true wonderment of what you and your organization have achieved and can achieve exists here.

A key point here is that an organization and its people can move up and down within these levels. It’s all about understanding how each level can be identified in relation to the actions and words of your people.

Turn The Ship Around, by L. David Marquet (2012), is published by Greenleaf Book Group, and Tribal Leadership, by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright (2008), is published by Harper Business. Both books can be purchased through the Firehall Bookstore.


Lyle Quan is the fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He has a business degree in emergency services and a degree in adult education. Lyle is an instructor for two Canadian universities and has worked with many departments in the areas of leadership, safety and risk management. E-mail Lyle at thequans@sympatico.ca and follow Lyle on Twitter at @LyleQuan


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