“The lure of the job of a volunteer firefighter certainly isn’t the pay — there is none. They train for hundreds of hours, then often go back to their small communities and do nothing. “There’s a boredom element to it,” Hinds-Aldrich said. Many offenders see their actions as helping the community. They believe they are providing chances to train, a chance for the firefighters to have some fun. They often target grasslands or derelict, empty buildings.” ~ San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 2013
It’s a sad reality that wildfires and arson appear to go hand in hand. I recently watched a documentary about the investigation into what became the largest wildfire in Colorado history, the Hayman Fire. This fire ultimately caused an enormous amount of damage; burning over 138,000 acres. The source of the blaze was traced back to a small campfire that had burned out of control on a hot, dry summer day. An 18 year veteran of the Forest Service was on fire watch in that day and claimed she noticed the blaze and attempted to stop it from spreading but to no avail. Sounds pretty straightforward right? Careless campfires are the culprit in many such disasters. Just ask Smokey.
Something here was not quite right however. Evidence unearthed at the site led to the suspicion that arson might be involved. As investigators probed deeper into the evidence, and into the story of the veteran “Forestry Technician”, a different story emerged. It was the very person who had committed to preserving the forest that initiated its destruction. The Forest Service employee ultimately broke down, admitting she has started the blaze. But why?
Her story is that she set the fire accidentally while burning a letter in anger that she received from her estranged husband. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison. However, many of those involved in the case suspect there was a different motive. They believe that she set the fire to draw attention to herself. To be the hero. To finally gain some recognition after 18 years on the team. We may never know. Maybe she doesn’t even really know what was going on in her head that day.
Ever experienced an organizational wildfire? Or maybe smaller fires that seemed unusual, unnecessary or unexpected?
Not all organizational fires are unhealthy. Fires can be a source of renewal. Some fires can be started naturally, through forces beyond our control. They can help us burn away the old habits or tired beliefs tied to past success and move in a new, healthier direction.
There is another kind of fire. One that consumes without purpose. When we take a closer look at the event, and examine the source of the fire, we find someone is hiding a match. Often these are people who really do care about the organization but there is another agenda at work that moves them to act in ways that are ultimately detrimental. They thought it would be just a small fire. Something they could start and then smother, but it ultimately grew out of control. Even when these fires are manageable they consume enormous time and resources that could be spent on more productive efforts. So why do these otherwise good team members, (and leaders), choose to start a fire? Here are a few possibilities that come to mind…
- To be recognized
- To be the hero
- To vent frustration
- To prove their value
- To be heard
- To make the work more interesting
By letting a problem happen and then fixing it this person might believe they will accomplish what they feel cannot be achieved through preventing the problem in the first place. They might be appreciated for coming to the rescue and get attention from the organization’s leaders. They may get the sense that they have done something more important for the organization than the routine work that normally fills their day. Perhaps they have always been good at firefighting and are addicted to the adrenalin rush that accompanies a good old-fashioned emergency…but not so good at the challenges of longer term, incremental progress.
Too often organizations unwittingly reinforce this behavior by putting “firefighters” on a pedestal. We have a habit of rewarding the people who come to the rescue and not so much the people who press on, without much fanfare, keeping things running smoothly and quietly. Another cause can be cultures where speaking up is frowned upon, levels and titles define communication and jobs are stripped of creativity and flexibility. Organizational arson can often be a passive aggressive response to being ignored after trying to bring an issue to the attention of leadership. Sometimes the issue can be traced back to a person in the wrong role or to people being promoted based on being in the right place at the right time or punished for a problem created by someone else.
Leaders can reduce the risk by looking beyond fire fighting to the source of the fire, rewarding the right behaviors, providing challenging work, taking time to listen and acting on promises to address issues.
What are some other ways a leader can discourage this behavior? Can you think of other cultural climates or leadership gaps that provide incentive to start organizational fires? Have you ever been part of an organization where firefighting was the path to promotion?
Would love to hear your thoughts and stories.