Cornerstone: May 2016

Leadership inside and outside the box
Lyle Quan
May 01, 2016
Written by
During the interview process to find my replacement as fire chief for the City of Waterloo, Ont., I was struck by a comment made by one of the candidates. In response to a question about leading outside of the box, the candidate said, “Before you can think outside of the box, you need to know what’s inside of the box.”
This comment impressed me and I have used it on several occasions since. I was in a bookstore recently and found a book titled Lead Inside the Box by Victor Prince and Mike Figliuolo, and I knew it would be worth sharing.

But before we talk about leading inside of the box, leaders must first understand what they stand for and how they want to move forward based on their beliefs. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is a compelling read that sets the foundation for absorbing leadership lessons. Frankl is a survivor of the Nazi death camps. During the author’s time in these prisoner camps, he witnessed many atrocities, but also the strength of the human soul.

Frankl notes in his book that “. . . in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.” So what does this tell me (and, I hope, you)? That the person you become as a leader is not just the result of the influences and challenges around you; it is also the result of your decisions about who you are and what you want to stand for. Fire-service leaders will not face the same adversity as Frankl, but they will face obstacles that will challenge the strength of their characters and beliefs.

Frankl writes that “. . . we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward.” As fire-service leaders, of all ranks, you cannot avoid the personal conflicts and challenges to your authority and decisions, but you can have total control over how you cope. You can accept these challenges as negatives or as opportunities to improve the situation; it’s your choice, no one else’s. Frankl’s book will make you question what you presently stand for and what you hope to stand for in the future.

In Lead Inside the Box, authors Prince and Figliuolo lay the foundation for readers to understand the concept of the organizational tool box. As we all know, fire services compete with other municipal departments for the same dollars and, as the authors note, “Leaders who can make improvements by shifting resources instead of adding them are more effective and valuable.”

The book starts off by asking readers to evaluate themselves based on a leadership matrix. From there, readers evaluate their teams and find out which members are exemplary contributors to the teams, which ones are high maintenance, and which ones are simply along for the ride. By completing the exercises within the book, readers should be able to identify gaps within their organizations, opportunities for improvement and/or need for succession planning.

As the authors note, the team assessment shows readers where they’re getting the most and the least return from their team members. By combining their results, readers discover where they may need to invest their leadership capital (human resources) to map out how to improve team performance – one team member at a time. The final chapter of the book explains how to apply the leadership matrix for maximum benefit for leaders and their teams.

Readers who execute the authors’ five-step process should be able to improve their performances.
  1. Document your assessments of where your team members fall on the leadership matrix.
  2. Build a plan that defines the actions required for team members to improve their performance.
  3. Discuss your approach with your team members and agree on the improvement plan.
  4. Take the specified actions and execute the plan.
  5. Measure and adjust as appropriate.
Both books are well worth the time to read and the effort required to apply their theories and applications towards improving your team and yourself. Remember, leadership is a journey, not a destination. The more you read, attend courses and network, the more you will grow.


Lyle Quan is the retired fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He works with fire services throughout North America to assess and develop service improvements and master planning. Email Lyle at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow Lyle on Twitter at @LyleQuan


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