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Leadership Forum: Showing leadership from ‘within’ the box

Showing leadership from ‘within’ the box

December 7, 2007
By E. David Hodgins


For many organizations, the workplace mantra for the 21st century is, "Do more; do it better; do it now and do it within existing resources."  The truth is, many fire departments are already there and have been for some time.  But, when it comes to the delivery of core services, I suggest that it's time for us to get back inside the proverbial "box."

I know what you're thinking.  For 15 years Dave has been telling us to be more creative and "think outside the box" – and now he is advising us to get back inside that box.  So what gives?  To start with, let's talk about the "Box."  For me, it represents our habits.  Getting outside of it means not allowing our past to obstruct us from creating solutions which address the infinite challenges we are facing. 

Outside-the-box thinking is not a magic elixir capable of creating a "silk purse out of a sow's ear."  Given the serious financial challenges many fire departments are facing, the solution is not always obtainable beyond the box.  A simply navel-gazing exercise in order to create imaginative solutions will not likely solve all your issues.  Gifted leaders are creative and ignore artificial boundaries. This is how they are able to create novel approaches to service delivery challenges.

These entrepreneurs introduce innovative, non-traditional programs not found on the average fire department service menus.  My all-time favourite is the award-winning program: "Receive a pizza and a smoke alarm for free."  The question is, "At what expense have some new-fangled programs been implemented?"


Socially responsible leaders involved with public safety services understand that their top priority is the delivery of basic life safety and property protection services.  The introduction of ancillary "feel and look good" programs that strain resources is just plain wrong.  The message about focusing on what's inside the box is targeted at leaders who are directly responsible for the stability of core services.  Many leaders have been lulled into a false sense of security in believing that the more they do, the more resources will be made available.  Not true.  Sometimes the more you do translates into having to do more with less.  And that is just not possible. 

Leaders need to be prudent when planning on pulling a "Jack" and jumping out of the box.  Be crystal clear about what you want to introduce and all associated costs and resource commitments – including the men and women necessary to sustain the program in the long term.  Think through the challenges and opportunities.  Will a novel approach free up or make better use of existing resources?  Will I enhance existing public safety services as a result of an innovative program?  Do your homework. 

Thinking outside the box has led to the creation of incredible life safety and property protection technologies.  One that comes to mind is the automatic sprinkler systems.  Like any revolutionary invention, the challenge becomes one of implementation.  I recently discovered a great read, Fire Waste in Canada by J. Grove Smith.  And here is a passage written by this forward-thinking author. 

"Statistics show that the majority of fires are discovered by the occupants of buildings and passers-by.  During the night, when business and industrial premises are vacated and passers-by infrequent, these agencies are obviously unreliable.  Hence, the importance of some device which, independent of human assistance, will promptly discover and control a fire at its point of origin.

"Of all the devices designed for fire protection, the automatic sprinkler alone meets these fundamental requirements.  It operates automatically in the precise location of a fire, distributes the least possible amount of water to control it and simultaneously gives notice of the occurrence at any desired point.  It is on duty twenty-four hours a day and 365 days a year.  It works well in smoke and out-of-the-way places as in the open, reaches fire where men with hose could not live and pours water into sections out of range of fire streams.  The automatic sprinkler has revolutionized the science of fire-fighting and has been the main factor in bringing about the control of fire hazard."

The kicker is – this book was written in 1918. Here we are almost 100 years later still struggling to have sprinklers installed in every occupancy!  

If you believe there is a benefit from pushing the envelope and are a trailblazer, award-winning programs like "Your local fire department delivers free pizzas and smoke alarms" make sense.  Unlike atypical programs that come with a significant additional cost and which are a drain on core emergency resources, this value-added program can be delivered within existing resources.  At the end of the day, if your department is resource-challenged and thinking outside the box is not accompanied with the necessary resources, then concentrate on the "meat and potatoes" business of public safety.  After all, that's the core of the fire services.

And remember, it's about respect and passion.

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