Leadership Competencies

Lessons From a Fire

Last week I was at a client meeting right up the road from the center of the Vistage universe. It was a warm day for Carlsbad, and the wind was kicking up, clearing out the coastal fog that cools the foothills near the beach.

We were in a Vistage member’s corporate headquarters that day. About mid-morning, the office staff gathered outside to get a glimpse of the fire that appeared far enough away not to cause alarm, but close enough to grab our attention.

wild fireAs we reconvened our meeting the CEO shared his vision for the future with a group of people who would be responsible for executing it. This was a man with a plan, but little did I know how clear he was in his thinking. A few minutes into his presentation, a staffer busted in and announced we had to evacuate.

It was an orderly evacuation, but in that everyone in the business park had the same idea, traffic pinched down to a crawl on the one-lane road that separated us from safety. We had decided to meet at a hotel about 15 miles away that offered a view of the Pacific and respite from the fires that had plagued an area experiencing a record drought.

The CEO (who was focused on the safety of his employees) joined us some time later, only to share the somber reality that the building we were in a couple of hours earlier was on fire. Thankfully, everyone had evacuated and were safe, but a number of the company’s employees would suffer some personal losses through the devastation. It was one of those moments when you only realize the severity of events after they have unfolded.

Through all of this, the CEO was cool as a cucumber. He seemed un-phased by the likelihood that the company’s systems would be down, records could be lost and the building could be inhabitable. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

While the chain of events was mildly surprising, I shouldn’t have been shocked by his behavior on that frightful day. This is the kind of guy that has a disaster recovery plan. His people knew what to do. He acted with calm and resolve. If he panicked, his employees would have panicked, and that would have not been good for them or the business.

I have observed over the years that the most competent of managers seem to think things through to the extent that can handle the unpredictable. In my book “Intended Consequences”, I remind people of the story of Sully Sullenberger who didn’t flinch when he had to land a plane in a river, because he was a man who spent his life thinking about checklists and contingency plans. In the case of a airliner or a business, the cost of failure is just too high.

This is the basic premise of planning; leaders face the unknown. We think about the things that are unthinkable. So take the time to think about the outside influences that can affect your business, and be prepared for them becoming eventualities.

And don’t forget, such thinking applies to both threats and opportunities. It is only by venturing outside solving day-to-day problems can we identify unique products, markets and new customers. As a business leader, don’t take anything for granted.

Category: Leadership Competencies


Marc Emmer About the Author: Marc Emmer

Marc Emmer is President of Optimize Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in strategic planning. Marc is a sixteen-year Vistage member and a Vistage speaker. He has he…

Learn More

  1. Thank you for this poignant recount of an intense moment. It’s those moments when we don’t realize anyone’s looking that we display our greatest strength. In the face of such difficulty, I salute this man for his resolve and leadership.

    • jasonroth

      May 27, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      Thanks for the comment Angela! We are glad you found this post interesting and relevant.

  2. Jennifer

    May 27, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    This story reveals a leader that embodies responding to the unplanned and not reacting. Response was in gratitude for lives being saved and progressing forward, accepting what could not be changed from the damage. A reaction would have been to panic, possibly endanger lives by placing more value on retrieving files etc., and bemoaning the losses. It is in trying times that true leaders lead by example.

    • jasonroth

      June 4, 2014 at 10:20 am

      Great comment Jennifer. Thanks for taking the time to add your two cents!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *