August 2022 | 

Timing Is Everything: Leadership Lessons from the FDNY

Timing Is Everything: Leadership Lessons from the FDNY

“As a leader, accept that, to some, you will never be right,” says Greg Shea, senior fellow at the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management. “It’s not because you don’t make good decisions, but there will always be people who think you are too fast or too slow. That is your reality, so you should get used to it. And, of course, the more senior you are, the more it’s true.”

In other words, no matter when you launch an initiative — whether it’s an organization-wide strategic endeavor, an innovation project, or a small-team task — someone is going to find fault. But when you expect at least a few dissenting voices, and work at timing the launch carefully, you can greatly improve your chances of getting things done.

Shea and research colleagues Paul Brown, retired captain of the FDNY, and executive coach Andre Kotze have already conducted over 60 hours of interviews with 9/11 first responders from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). Their study has already provided useful insights on leadership timing, revealing that whatever you ask of your followers, the when is just as critical as the who, why, and how. This work is especially relevant today, when most workforces are still coping on some level with the pandemic (as much as they might wish it wasn’t so). Stress from large numbers of resignations, the continued debate over remote and hybrid work, work-life balance issues, and ongoing disruptions and uncertainty about the virus are preventing most organizations from getting “back to normal.”

Three Stages of Reaction

“One thing I have learned so far is that, consistent with research on other major catastrophic events, major community traumas (and organizations qualify as communities) unfold in roughly three stages,” Shea says. “The first is acute [mass layoffs happen, a virus quickly spreads and kills thousands], which can last for weeks, months, or even longer. I describe it as ‘trauma that causes raw punishment.’”

In the second phase, what Shea calls “trekking through,” people show up and do the work, whether it’s getting a business back up and running or providing care to the sick. “They just do what is required,” he says. “This stage can go for months. But it is typically followed by a third stage, a desire for renewal. What’s next might not be clear, but people become open to figuring it out.”

What Stage Are You In?

Shea says leaders who move too fast, trying to push the third phase on people who aren’t ready, won’t get far: “Your followers simply won’t follow you. When they are just holding it together, they are not ready for renewal.” But that doesn’t mean you should expect the “trekking through” phase to go on indefinitely. “It can be a tough spot for leaders,” he explains. “If you don’t keep moving, you can get trapped in survival mode and miss the opportunity for renewal. But getting to renewal can’t come at the cost of denying what people are going through.”

So how do you know when the time is right, when people are open to following your lead to what’s next? Shea says during sessions in both the Becoming a Leader of Leaders: Pathways for Success and Leading Organizational Change programs, he and other faculty “share multiple lenses to help you check in with your and your followers’ current mindset. Some people have never thought about paying attention to this before, and others have tried but not gotten very far. It’s important to be able to scan the situation and your followers in different ways.”

One of those ways is, to the extent it’s possible, spending time with those you lead in person. “Communication is vital,” says Shea. “When your followers feel that you are listening and you understand them — that you know their pain — they in turn will see the effort and feel more connected. Then, they will be able to have conversations about what strategic initiatives could happen next, and they may then be genuinely excited about growth. Figuring out and acknowledging the reality of where they are now, though, is the critical first step.”

Unfortunately, that step is challenged by remote and hybrid work. “Workers who aren’t in the office every day need to be asked about how they are doing,” he says. “And you need to pay careful attention to their answers. When people are just trying to get through something, they can appear disengaged, but that’s not necessarily true. If you ask questions and really listen to the answers about what comes next for your team or organization, you may be surprised to see how people perk up. They could be on the tail end of trekking through and ready to entertain ideas about renewal.”

Open communication is especially important for leaders tasked with trying to get people back to the office. Issuing a mandate, as plenty of headlines and LinkedIn posts attest, will likely be met with resistance. Instead, says Shea, “it’s a great opportunity to involve people. Ask questions about how they envision the future of work. Give them the opportunity to help decide what’s next, while also being clear about how senior leaders see it.”

What’s Possible in Renewal

After 9/11, the FDNY could have gotten to work rebuilding what they had (“one of the most prestigious fire departments on the planet,” says Shea). “Instead, they chose to consider what they wanted to be. It led to a major transformation that is still evolving. They went from being a fire department to an incident-management department, which requires working across internal and external silos; communicating in more varied and sophisticated ways; and building other, different competencies.”

Shea continues, “One of their commissioners summed it up like this: ‘The fire department in New York had 150 years of service uninterrupted by progress.’ As examples, the FDNY has brought in data analysts and committed to developing a wide range of skills, including incident-command abilities that make them a national resource, one called upon to manage large-scale disasters like wildfires in Montana. It has been a tremendous change in orientation and they have become a national disaster resource. The FDNY had a choice about whether to rebuild or recreate, and they chose the latter.”

Whether you are considering a full-scale revision or planning for a future that looks slightly different, the FDNY study shows that leadership is vital. And understanding where your workforce is and what they are open to requires leaders to pay very careful attention to them. There may always be someone who thinks you’re too fast or too slow, but their opinion won’t matter if you’re getting things done.