8 Signs and Problems with “Fire-fighting” Leadership

Here’s how I define “fire-fighting leadership”: leading by always working to put out fires before they get too hot and burn too much. To be honest, I think I can speak to this topic because I far too often led that way as a pastor. Perhaps this list of problems with this leadership style can help you evaluate your own leadership:

  1. Everything’s a potential emergency. You don’t want anything to get out of control, so you try to stay on top of everything—and deal with it with urgency—whether or not it’s yet a serious issue.
  2. When everything’s a potential emergency, it’s hard to recognize a real emergency when it does occur. And, it’s not easy to gain a needed hearing from others if they know you always exaggerate situations.
  3. “Faith” becomes more a religious word than a marker of one’s life. We can encourage others to walk by faith while never operating in faith ourselves. Firefighting leadership is most often only present tense.   
  4. You never really experience the peace that God offers. Following Christ brings a peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7) – unless we allow circumstances of life to rob us of that joy. Fire-fighting leaders often find little rest in Christ.
  5. Casting a vision for an organization is almost impossible. It’s difficult to think about the future, see the potential of what God wants to do, and invite others to join you on the journey when you’re always focused on the immediate fire.
  6. You begin to assume negatively about people and situations. When you’re watching for fires, you can’t help but see “sparks” and smell smoke long before any fire erupts. In even the best situations, you’re just waiting for the first flicker of flame.
  7. Others who work with you get frustrated with your lack of direction and passion. They may still love and respect you, but they reach a point where they’re just longing for you to really lead them. They think you see more fires than are truly there.
  8. You describe a “good day” in terms of what didn’t happen rather than what did happen. That is, you’re just glad when you get through the day without dealing with a fire; thus, you often miss some positive things that God is doing.

What other firefighting leadership characteristics come to mind for you?


  • Chaplain Mike says:

    Well Chuck, I can certainly understand all of the issues that come about from the lack of leadership and management training in seminaries yesterday and tomorrow. After 40 years in the fire service in California, I can attest to the fact that experienced firefighters approach firefighting much differently than you portray.

    First of all, it is hard to shake up a firefighter – we have seen tremendous amounts of “bad stuff” and we have learned to put the emotional response in our back pockets and focus on the objectives that the incident presents and mitigate them in an objective, calm fashion. We realize that the emergency is not ours and we are there to remedy the problem.

    Second, we pre-plan out every building, wildland area, and any other possible incident that might occur. We therefore understand the potential threats, know what resources are needed, and know the best routes into the incident prior to it occurring. We minimize our surprises and are therefore able to act reliably on scene.

    Third, we train, and train, and train. We physically train to be ready for any contingency, especially in the heat of the desert and the cold on the mountains. We train on our equipment to be effective. We practice scenarios again to minimize surprises. We train and educate in the classroom on HR issues, project and program management, leadership of our personnel, and interacting with people ranging from presidents to street people. We go to school with appropriate update curriculum that actually helps us with our jobs. We educate ourselves many times to the master’s degree levels and doctoral programs in order to reliably run departments that can have 7,000 – 10,000 employees, budgets in the hundreds of millions, and protecting properties in the hundreds of billions. We cannot afford to mess up, and when we do, we hear about it too.

    Fourth, we have standard operating procedures (SOP’s) or guidelines (SOG’s). protocols, and policies to guide our actions so everyone is onboard with who is responsible for what on emergency scenes. After any serious incident, we debrief and do after action reviews and reports to examine the good, the bad, the ugly, and share them with ourselves and other departments (especially safety issues).

    Number five, we hold ourselves and others accountable. If you mess up, you get progressive discipline up and to the point of dismissal or forced resignation. In our profession, screwing up can damage property, and kill people. It is not tolerated.

    Six, when we do encounter any emergency, we do move fast – but not out of worry that the incident will get out of hand, but because we are very effective, efficient, and reliable so we are able to knock things out quickly, without panic. We know the objectives and we mitigate them in an orderly, yet quick fashion. You may notice that I do not use the word “attack”, I use mitigate. Attack in untrained people means loss of objectivity, mitigation has a plan behind it and an orderly process in which to carry it out.

    We are proud of who we are! We do love being in the units, waving at people, doing outreach, wearing out t-shirts off duty, and are generally a positive people (we do have our Grumpies though they are the minority).

    I know that every year, you and millions of others watch our huge wildfires on TV. Do you think that the panic, and the purposelessness of your firefighting example could manage the 230,000 firefighters, 20,000 pieces of equipment, and the hundreds of aircraft it took to finally bring the siege in the State to an end? Does your example mention the stamina, determination, and dedication it takes to go from fire to fire, incident to incident for nine months out of the year? And then, we get to go home and “rest” while on normal duty where we are running 10-30 responses a day on 24-72 hour shifts.

    I contend if we ran churches like we ran fires, they would be full. Churches would not exhibit as many problems as they do, tolerate misbehavior as they do, and they would be positively affecting the communities that they don’t do now. Firefighters police themselves and most of the time, misbehavior is not tolerated and quickly handled in a proper fashion. Them mission would get carried out by dedicated people because nobody is a bystander if they are a true firefighter. Things would not be in disrepair. You wouldn’t fly in a broken helicopter, you know that broken stuff is nonfunctional and adds to the problems, yet churches allow broken stuff to exist all of the time and take a blind eye to it.

    I know your post was out of ignorance of the true profession of firefighting and my goal was to educate. my hope is that somewhere along the way, the church straightens out its leadership and management issues so we can bring Christ back to the foreground instead of buried behind all of the stuff that makes us ugly. Adopting some of these principles would allow the pastor and the flock to more effectively witness and provide a sanctuary from the weekly grind instead of adding to people’s problems. Let’s get it together so we can reliably (faithfully) carry out the Great Commission.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Actually, chaplain Mike, I was a volunteer firefighter, and I don’t disagree with your general thoughts here. I learned much in firefighting that would have helped me as a pastor. I’m genuinely sorry if the post comes across as somehow critiquing firefighters. I use the term “fire-fighting leadership” only because that’s a common phrase (right or wrong) for leading more reactively than proactively. Thanks for your years of service.

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