Time to light some fires

Firefighters have a demanding job. On the one hand, they do all the stuff that we expect in a crisis, like turning up and fighting a roaring blaze. Behind the scenes is all the important stuff we don’t see – getting prepared for the next big fire, and working to create conditions that make fires difficult to take hold at all.  

In many ways, public leadership is the same. Part of the job is in responding to issues as they present, while another is front-footing fires before they can kindle. The critical difference between leadership and firefighting though, is that leaders have the capability to do something that many firefighters don’t - lighting the flame. 

(And sometimes, we need to think more like bush firefighters and set a controlled burn, to clear out the litter that's accumulated underfoot...)

Brave public leaders set the world on fire occasionally. They do this by thinking big and embracing new opportunities to achieve their vision for the community.

Lighting fires shouldn’t be done willy-nilly however - bold, effective decisions mean we need to be really clear about where we’re going, and what might get in our way.  

“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. 

Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos; you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.” 

- Nassim Nicholas Taleb 

Some of the most enjoyable work I do with boards and leadership teams supports better, faster decisions through understanding strategic risk. (I ran a free webinar on this yesterday – watch the recording here.) 

Senior leaders don’t always understand strategic risk very well. The strategic gets all mixed in with garden-variety operational risk management. When this happens, decision-makers get stuck in the weeds and risk falls by the wayside, is delegated or ignored.  

The result: slow and scattered decision-making, wasted time and lost opportunities. 


Strategic risk management, then, is about lighting the odd fire. While operational risk management focuses on prevention – protecting the value we already have, strategic risk management is about creating new value.  

While operational risk asks the question: “how do we keep everything ticking over safely?” strategic risk asks: “what might stand in the way of meaningful change?”  

The difference is like night and day – and when senior leaders and decision makers focus on those questions, we can think bigger and focus on the stuff that really matters, to have real impact.

Where is your board, team or Council on this the continuum?  

Is it time to light some fires? 

Til next week