Lessons Learned from the Misfortunes of Others

Leadership should be a never-ending journey. If you are the same leader 10 years after promotion, then the fire department probably promoted the wrong person. With the ever-changing operational environment faced by the fire service, static leadership is an open invitation to less than optimal service. This article will discuss the utility of using case studies for professional development and provide an example of a case, and the parallels are drawn from the case to the fire service.  

Case studies can prove valuable for several reasons. They usually provide a detailed explanation of a problem and all the factors associated with the problem. Most case studies can be applied to multiple types of businesses, and the value in using cases is that it requires the reader to look at both the details and the bigger picture issues associated with the case. The studies tend to be written from an objective part of those reading the case. By giving an impartial presentation of an issue, one can engage in critical thinking or what can be referred to as a 360-degree view of an issue, more on this in a future article. Case studies are often downloadable PDF documents that can be shared with multiple people.  

It should go without saying that case studies can walk you through a difficult situation and spare you the pain of first-hand experience. Many studies describe dealing with the unforeseen or unknown. Crisis management such as the Tylenol poisoning or the Challenger mishap can give leaders insight into how to navigate through difficult and emotional situations. One of the thorniest subjects a leader will ever have to tackle is organizational change, and the studies that deal with this subject are numerous. 

Many venues are available from which to draw case studies. An excellent source is the Harvard Business Review. Their current inventory consists of 544 pages, with about twenty cases listed per page. Yes, there is a cost associated with the site, and yes, you actually have to buy the documents. The prices typically run in the $8.00 - $10.00 range. Here is where leadership comes into play. If you have people under your command; if you are responsible for the development of the next generation of leadership in your organization, and you are not willing to invest some of your own money in the development of your staff, then I say again, they probably promoted the wrong person. 

One case that provides a lot of lessons and a good starting point for discussion is the Harvard Business Review case study The Army Crew Team by Polzer & Snook. This document examines the 2002 West Point 8-man crew and the dynamics between the 1st and 2nd boat. Using an extensive set of metrics, Colonel Stas Preczewski, the rowing team coach, identified what should have been the best team and the fastest boat. The only problem with the theory was the number 2 boat consistently beat the number 1 boat in head-to-head racing. This study opens the door to many discussions that can help to develop the reasoning power of our up and coming. Questions like do certifications guarantee proficiency. How important are team dynamics on operational effectiveness? What hard choices are presented in this case? How would you handle the situation if you were Coach Preczewski? I am sure you can see the benefits of using this case study for professional development. 

Another facet of using case studies in professional development is that they serve as a good starting point. The Harvard Business Review document ends with Coach Preczewski facing the decision of what to do. The case does not elaborate on his decision; the reader is left not knowing what happened. Is there a happy ending? The only way to find out is to do additional research. To stay relevant, leaders must continuously search for the answers, for the best way, in the most efficient way. If we are not giving and, if necessary, forcing our future leaders to pursue solutions, what makes us think that giving someone a new badge will result in the pursuit of knowledge? Maybe people will resent this, look at this as just busywork, but if one person adopts a new outlook, then perhaps the turmoil was worth the effort.  

The future of your organization depends, in large part, on how the future leaders are prepared to assume the mantle of command. This is no easy task. A successful organization will employ as many tools as possible to help workers transition into leaders. Using case studies can be a cost-effective way to build some of the characteristics good leaders need to possess.  

Works Cited: Polzer, J. (2004). The Army Crew Team. Harvard Business Review. 

Chief Dennis Reilly is a 43-year fire service veteran currently serving as the Assistant Chief/Operations Commander for the Davis California Fire Department. Dennis previously served as the Fire Chief in Sunrise Beach, Missouri, and as a Battalion Chief in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Chief Reilly holds an MPA from Penn State, is a CFO, and a combat veteran of the U.S. Army having been deployed to the first Gulf War. 

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