If you fight your team’s fires, now you’re incompetent too.

If you’re personally solving urgent problems, you’re not holding your people accountable. Urgent problems mean the workplace is getting out of control, and if things are getting out of control, someone isn’t doing their job. It may be because they don’t know how to do it, or because they need someone to make them do it, or because they don’t believe they have the authority, or because they are not a good fit for the organization. Whatever the reason, there is no accountability at the level of the urgent problem, and someone is letting it happen. 

Let’s say there are some directors who are not playing well together, and the conflicts become acute. For the CEO to address the problem himself/herself is to address the symptom. The problem is really the vice presidents who manage the directors. They are not being held accountable to create cooperation.

As the leader, an urgent problem is not your problem. Your problem is figuring out at what level of the organization the fire is, and getting the correct person to solve it. Your job is remaining the calm, cool center of the crisis. Your job is continuing to think and be objective, and to see the context. 

Somewhere below you in the organization is the person with the greatest first-hand knowledge of the situation. That person may not be an executive, or even a manager. This person, the person with the most expertise, should be identified and given the authority to solve the problem. You personally have to step back, avoid getting personally involved in the fire, and find that person.

Your job is not to dive in and solve the problem yourself. This sounds simple, but it’s a trap that executives get caught in constantly. (Note that diving in to solve a problem isn’t the same thing as a “deep dive.” A deep dive is to check the effectiveness of the leaders around you, not to solve their problems. If I manage you, I do a deep dive so that I have context around my ideas of how well you are doing.)

Here’s why things get worse if you solve the problem yourself: 

  1. You’re bypassing and therefore weakening the organization’s structure and lines of accountability. This means you are feeding the chaos. Chaos is the opposite of a well-ordered structure. 
  2. You’re making people incompetent, and not allowing them to grow. For an organization to function well, leaders below you and their teams need to solve their own problems. This way, they will be more likely to prevent them. It also takes the drama out of the situation. 
  3. You’re still not going to have the truth. You’ll gather a sliver of the truth, but that doesn’t mean you have your hands around the situation. Other people will have other slivers of the truth, and in the end, the people doing the actual work will have a better picture of what’s going on than you ever will. Defer to expertise. Don’t replace your team’s best thinking with your one-off thinking. Let them know it’s their job to handle it. 
  4. If you solve the problem yourself, now you’re incompetent. You’re not leading the organization correctly. You’re not drawing lines of accountability. You’re undermining the authority of the people that report to you. These are not the actions of a competent leader. 
  5. Your team can now blame you if something goes wrong. If you, based on your incomplete knowledge of the situation, come up with a solution and it doesn’t work as well as it could, that makes you look bad. 
  6. If you solve the problem, you won’t see how good your team is at solving the problem. CEOs get involved in crises without stepping back and identifying whose problem is it, being clear with expectations that it’s their job to solve the problem, and then stepping back and observing how the group is solving the problem, and if they are capable. If they are not capable, it’s a new situation. 
  7. You’re now creating an opportunity cost. If you spend your mental bandwidth on a crisis, you are not monitoring and managing other parts of the organization, your mind has no time to assess and manage external threats, and so on. This kind of distraction is bad for the organization’s health. You may have the power and latitude to dive down and ignore your other responsibilities for a while, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. 

People like fires because they are dramatic. People get to be heroes in a crisis. It’s much more fun than prevention. But it’s not as good for the organization. Don’t reinforce the drama, and don’t go to the rescue. Get the experts to solve the problem, then figure out how to focus on prevention.

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  • Amy
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    Great article! I’m sharing with my friends and colleagues since the same issues show up in personal lives. Thank you!

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