Stop looking for solutions to problems and start looking for the right path.” — Andy Stanley

“I don’t have time to work on prevention. I have too many emergencies to deal with.”

Those words are a common refrain that I hear from good leaders. The step they need to take to be exceptional is to get a higher view that allows them to do their work differently and lead for the longer-term gain.

The first thing in their way is that dealing with emergencies is typically one of their greatest strengths. These fire-fighting leaders are responsive! They let everyone know that they are taking immediate, decisive actions.  Even if the problem exists at many organizational levels below them, they take personal responsibility and direct action to help solve the problem.

These actions are often respected and recognized by everyone around them. That emergency was solved.

However, the causes of the emergency are typically still there. Here are three key things that can help get leaders out of emergency mode.

  • Make it a habit to do useful root cause identification. When dealing with the sudden emergence of a problem, immediately start asking how the problem came about. If something was lost, was it misplaced?  If it was misplaced, was it because the storage system was flawed? If flawed, how?  Most of the time, leaders have to do “fire fighting” because of multiple small failures. Underneath those small failures is often a larger problem. Make it a habit to look deeper.
  • Ensure that those you lead master this root cause identification habit.  When people bring you a problem, insist that they also bring a simple, quick analysis. The simple analysis should include what they are doing about the problem and where they need help.  It should also include a first pass at identifying the root cause of why the problem exists now.
  • Do the work to eliminate the root causes. The habit of seeing the root causes is useless unless action is taken. Take the time to take action.  When the problem is outside your circle of control, it is more difficult, but that does not remove your obligation to help.

I am often treated with the complaint that there is no time to work on the root causes. This is why I encourage people to get above the immediate fire. Sit on top of a mountain. Look to the horizon of the value you provide. Your time is a priority call. The exceptional few choose not just to stamp out a small fire every day. They choose the big value route.  

How are you spending your day?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Photo by G-R Mottez on Unsplash

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