Running Toward the Flames—Without Fanning Them

Posted By: Michael Burke Global Alliance Summit, Member Resources,

Introducing the guest speaker for this year’s Leadership Forum at the ASAP Global Alliance Summit in Tampa, ASAP’s president and CEO Michael Leonetti, CSAP, said the organization was “looking for somebody outside the corporate space—where leadership can be a matter of life and death.”

To find that person, ASAP ran straight into the fire. Or rather, straight to the fire chief.

Randy Keirn has over 30 years’ experience as a firefighter and is district chief and EMS division chief for a fire district in Florida. In the course of those three decades fighting fires and managing crews, his thoughts on leadership and resolving conflict have undergone an evolution, and he shared his thinking—including some of the psychological findings to back it up—with participants in the Leadership Forum on the final day of the ASAP Global Alliance Summit held in Tampa last week.

Keirn now heads up Fully Involved Consulting, where he coaches and trains leaders and teams. He’s also the author of a book titled CROSSfire: Taking the Heat Out of Conflict; A Conflict Resolution Guide for Fire Officers (2013). Evidently he had some conversations with ASAP members prior to the Leadership Forum, and he expressed some amazement at what an alliance professional’s day-to-day work actually entails.

“Man, your job is complex!” he exclaimed. “It’s so set up to have problems. Why did you sign up for this?”

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Then again, for all its complexity, alliance work may just pale before the dangerous job of sending crews of men and women into the smoke and flames. Keirn was a rising star as a firefighter and was promoted young; he started managing fire crews while still in his 20s. But looking back now, he realizes he had no idea how to manage people, resolve conflict, and get the best out of his teams. At times it was a painful learning experience.

"I was probably micromanaging,” he admitted, “annoying the crap out of them.” So much so that when he told a normally quiet and introverted paramedic and driver that he needed him to stop sitting on the bumper of the truck talking to his friend and get busy checking out the fire truck, the man bluntly told him, “Go do it yourself.”

Keirn was speechless, and waited in vain for an opportunity to talk to the man again—an opportunity that never came.

As quickly as it began, his “honeymoon period” as a leader was over. He was called to the chief’s office and informed, “You’re not a leader. It’s not working out. You’re going to have to find a way.” So for the next 20-plus years, Keirn said, “I’ve been trying to find a way.”

Friction and Fire

That way has taken him through many on-the-job experiences, classes, readings, and a great deal of learning, and the fires he’s helped put out along the way are anything but metaphorical. Like any workplace, a firehouse can be the scene of friction, disagreement, personality clashes, and other conflicts—but unlike most people’s work settings, the way such conflicts get resolved (or not) may mean the difference between life and death. The stakes are high.

Nevertheless, Keirn noted that conflict can actually be a good thing, handled correctly, and therein lies an opportunity for better collaboration and innovation.

“Can conflict be positive? Absolutely,” he said. “You don’t eliminate conflict but you try to reduce its harmful effects.”

The costs of lingering, unresolved conflicts can include lost time, money, and delayed decisions—or more to the point, good decisions that don’t get made in a timely fashion, if at all.

“How decisions go is how goes the organization,” Keirn summarized.

Mirror, Mirror

In his talk, Keirn stressed the importance for leaders of building good teams and managing them by “showing up” and believing in their team members, carrying a confident, positive attitude into everyday situations—including conflicts. He suggested that leaders regularly take the “mirror test”: i.e., look in the mirror and ask, “Are you part of the problem? Do you believe in your team? What’s your role in this?”

Citing Stephen Covey’s The Speed of Trust (2006), Keirn said, “I boil it all down to one thing: relationships. Trust is based on relationships—one of the most critical things you can do in your line of work.”

Another work cited by Keirn was Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organization (2018). Edmondson pioneered the concept of “psychological safety”: a necessary prerequisite not only to resolving conflicts with openness and honesty, but to building and maintaining high-performing teams in general.

In this view, psychological safety connotes an environment where no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up about mistakes, questions, or problems. This stands in contrast, Keirn noted, to many workplaces where people are afraid to speak up, often in the face of leaders who seek to impose their own ideas and their own will in more of a command and control style.

“No one has ever been fired for silence,” Keirn said.

Helping Teams Solve Problems—and Kick “But”!

Of course, Keirn didn’t come to these conclusions all at once. “My ego for years answered all the questions,” he admitted. “But the outcomes weren’t that great.”

He urged leaders to keep in mind that “your solution is not going to be as good as the team’s,” and to ask team members, “What do you think we should do?” He viewed it as a triumph when one of his subordinates posted a message to the team over Keirn’s name—not because he knew that’s exactly what Keirn would say, but because he knew that Keirn would have asked him, “What do you think we should do?”

There was quite a bit more to unpack in Keirn’s talk—including a pairing-up exercise in listening that brought the entire audience out into the hallway—but here are just a few more nuggets:

  • “Listen to what people are saying—and what they’re not saying,” Keirn said, recalling a conversation in which someone told him, “Your words said yes; your body said no.”
  • “Get teams to have conversations and fix their own problems, so they won’t just call you all the time.”
  • “Every person I fired—except one, he got arrested—hugged me and thanked me before they walked out the door. I’m there to help them, but they have to help themselves.”
  • Finally, my personal favorite: what Keirn called “but awareness.” This is a rule he instituted where, when someone objects to an idea with “But…,” they can state their objection—and then they must add two new ideas to the mix, instead of just being naysayers: “And…” Very useful and constructive!