This is part one of a three part series on mission driven culture, a leadership development program being tested by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

A tsunami of fire closes in on a casino resort in the foothills east of San Diego. A CalFire Battalion Chief, scouting as a field observer with a sheriff’s deputy, arrives on scene to unfolding catastrophe: people are panicking and attempting to evacuate on a narrow, winding road; scorched horses, still burning and smoking, are running loose inside the casino.

In the BC’s judgment, the 2500 people around the casino will face certain death in their struggle to escape the flames. He orders everyone inside and directs management to lock the doors. When the flame front passes, the BC asks the deputy to go door to door and evacuate to as many homes as possible in the fire’s path.

Post-event investigations all agree that together the BC and sheriff’s deputy saved thousands of lives that night. Their extraordinary actions were not the result of specific policies or standard operating procedures. They were the result of an organizational culture that fosters adaptability and resilience – a Mission-Driven Culture (MDC).

The Battalion Chief had no positional or delegated authority to take the actions he did, nonetheless, it was the necessary thing to do and it was the right thing to do. The Los Angeles Times agreed: “In a night where few guesses proved right, [the battalion chief’s] gamble paid off. Like a moat, the parking lot and golf course protected the casino as flames raged past.”

Contrast that story with this headline from an incident several years later that sparked community outrage: ‘Handcuffed by policy’: Fire crews watch man die.

About 75 beachgoers could not understand why [city] firefighters and police officers stood idly by and watched the man slowly succumb to the 60-degree water.

“It’s horrible,” [a witness] said. “How can we let that happen? How can our emergency personnel allow that to happen? I don’t get it, I don’t understand it.”

The city fire department says budget constraints are preventing it from recertifying its firefighters in land-based water rescues. Without it, the city would be open to liability.

When asked by [the news] if he would enter the water to save a drowning child, [city] Fire Div. Chief [name] said: “Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that’s what’s required by our department to do.”

In one situation, responders over-rode policy and saved thousands of lives. In the other, they followed policy and a 50-year old man spent nearly an hour in the water before drowning in plain sight of those sworn to save him.

Followers are conditioned to follow rules. When they encounter ambiguity, they ask permission to act. Until then, they wait to be told what to do. Rules make sense for things that cannot be delegated or have no value being delegated.  When they interfere with doing the right thing, that’s a problem. Tragically, accounts of agencies shackled by their own policies are all too common. Initially well intended, these policies become “Tail Wags Dog” stories, counterproductive to the organization’s mission.

How are we to equip people with the necessary guidance so the right action is taken, at the right time, and for the right reasons? The answer lies not in beefing up current policies, but in shifting culture to value operators over followers.

MDC consists of a set of foundational values and principles that integrate existing sets of values and practices throughout the organization and align them to the core purpose of the organization. MDC seeks to optimize the balance of safety, efficiency, and effectiveness to best deliver service to the customer. It places priority on maximizing successful mission accomplishment over rote process.  

A Mission Driven Culture (MDC) has six core values:

  • Service for the Common Good
  • High Trust State
  • Pursuit of Truth
  • Form & Function Defined by the End State
  • Individual Initiative
  • Continuous Improvement

Bureaucracies tend to rely on systems and processes to make decisions. MDC relies on individuals to use their judgment, guided by values and principles versus policies and rules. In standard circumstances, the best course will normally be to use the applicable standard operating procedure (SOP). Standard situations are where the inputs are well understood and the outputs (the results) are highly predictable. In abnormal circumstances, the SOP is inadequate to solve the problem and achieve success.

MDC uses a system of mission command - decentralized decision-making, guided by a framework of leader’s intent combined with the authority and expectation to act. Senior leaders communicate the task, purpose and end state of an assignment and provide the needed resources.  The how of getting it done — the planning and the execution — is delegated to sub leaders.

In the absence of guidance, operators are expected to act within the intent of the organization’s mission. Operators should constantly strive to influence their environment to accomplish the mission. They act as leaders regardless of rank. The BC at the casino was an operator. His decisions and actions were a product of a mission-driven culture.

Mission command is extraordinarily disciplined. Each operator is highly accountable for their actions and the flow of information. Senior leaders still communicate constraints — things that must be done or things that cannot be done — but MDC focuses on training people how to use their judgment, rather than rely solely on rules and policy.