Fire Fighting in Canada

Leadership Forum: Venturing into the weeds

May 6, 2024 
By Matt Pegg

I challenge you to peruse, for any amount of time at all, the shelves of your local bookstore or library in the “management and leadership” section without finding numerous authors who caution leaders about the perils of venturing into “the weeds”.

It is unquestionably true that many good leaders have found themselves oblivious to the iceberg ahead as a result of being too deep in the weeds on an issue. Likewise, many leaders also struggle to calibrate their focus and role as they progress into increasingly senior leadership roles, often preferring the safety of remaining within their particular comfort zone, therefore staying in the weeds.

I am a believer that, generally speaking, the more senior a leadership position you hold, the more horizon-focused you need to be. Senior leaders must remain focused on the destination, setting strategy and charting the course for both the team and the organization. They must remain vigilant for obstacles, storms and other pitfalls that lie in wait for the unsuspecting and improperly focused team in order to make proactive and timely course corrections to avoid the storms ahead.

Analogies abound for this leadership truth, and my favourites generally come from aviation. Leadership and management scholars caution us that we tend to “fly to where we are looking” and assure us of near-certain doom if leaders dare delve into the tactics and tasks of a particular issue.


I am a firm proponent of maintaining separation between strategy, tactics, and task, especially during crisis and emergency. I also agree that, as leaders, we ought to be focused on where we are going while relying on our team to get us there safely and efficiently.

But neither life nor leadership is that absolute. While horizon-focused leadership is both wise and necessary, there are times when even the most senior of leaders needs to dive into an issue.

This is where the magic happens, where things can quickly go awry and where shortcuts tend to be taken. We can learn an awful lot about those around us, and indeed about ourselves, with a good trip into the depths of what is happening around us.

Modern leadership and management science has attached impressive-sounding technical terms to this idea of diving into the weeds now and again. Concepts like continuous quality improvement are born here and industrial efficiency models such as Lean, Six Sigma and ISO 9001 rely on the intentional and focused scrutiny of every detail of a process or function for efficiency’s sake.

There is one important point that is easy for us all to lose perspective of: Every issue is both a horizon and weeds issue at the same time. My issues as fire chief are both horizon issues for a deputy chief and in the weeds for the city manager. A manager’s issues are horizon issues for a supervisor and are in the weeds for a director.

As a leader, don’t be afraid to take a deep dive into areas of your organization and how your teams deliver results. It is often enlightening and amazing what you will learn and experience when you take some time to explore these places, and a considerable amount of clarity comes from wandering through the inner workings of the machine now and again.

Just make sure that someone is watching the horizon while you venture off into the depths, and make sure that you don’t get stuck there. After all, if you are privileged enough to be in a senior leadership position in your organization, you owe it to yourself and those who rely on you, to return to the strategy and horizon-oriented focus in due course.

When it comes to addressing problems, new leaders tend to focus on understanding what happened. Better, more experienced leaders focus on why this particular problem happened. The very best leaders among us, however, also focus on how they personally contributed to this issue, and how they can adjust their behaviour or performance as part of the preventative action moving forward.

It takes perspective to understand each of those factors, so don’t be afraid to take a deep dive to achieve that understanding.

Just remember, sometimes the thickest and scariest weeds a leader can dive into are their own.

Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Matthew at and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS

Print this page


Stories continue below