In our business, unfortunately, we don't always get to pick when and where we have our battles. I don't mean this in the context of leading, but in the context of response and operations.
Simply said, our overarching goal as an incident commander should be to dictate the conditions, not to permit the conditions to dictate to us. But no matter what, we are on the defense on every call, despite our terminology; we didn't choose to engage in battle at the time, it was chosen for us, so offensive, defensive, or transitionally, we are really always starting on the idea that we defend, even if that defense is an aggressive offense.
Sun Tzu's warnings are clear that a good general doesn't go into battle unprepared. Zhuge Liang's commentaries on leadership suggest the need for picking the place of engagement to obtain maximum effect. Clausewitz cautions that we have to cut through the "fog of war" to get to the real essence of situational awareness. But these classics all are predicated on the general's ability to maneuver out of a situation where they are put into conflict without adequate preparation. We don't have that luxury.
When we are called out after midnight to respond to a structure fire, we are already on our heels. When we are alerted to a cardiac arrest on a fine spring afternoon, we didn't necessarily expect it to happen. We prepare for these events through training, but what we can't prepare for are the contributing factors that led to this disaster occurring at that moment, at that place, and in that context. The fight may already be lost by the time we arrive to the battlefield and we have to keep that idea tucked away in the back of our heads and prepare for the proper reaction to those events. Adding to disaster by refusing to admit our need to defend is the downfall of many a general, and many a fire chief.
On a recent call, my crews were unable, despite extraordinary and valiant efforts, to reverse the outcome. In the past, perhaps they would be more accepting, but in light of recent changes to our strategies, these guys have been enjoying the fruits of their labor and they have been pulling off some amazing work. Today, however, all of that effort was notable, but not able to change what was already writ. I could see the expressions on their faces as they questioned what else they could have done. I spoke with them and encouraged them, but it was obvious, they had gotten so used to winning that losing was just not an option.
Despite our best efforts, we lose from time to time. There are parking lots out there that were predestined, rather than created by failure on the part of the incident commander. People die sometimes catastrophically, with the only possible saving intervention being bright lights and cold steel. Rather than dwell on the loss, it is imperative that we review our actions, determine the things we did right, analyze the things we could improve on, and prepare for the next battle. The greatest sports teams, the most powerful armies, and the most skilled negotiators lose on occasion. The difference between their continued success and sliding into the pit of failure is their ability to look creatively and insightfully to what occurred and to create means of learning from the issues they were presented. If anything, simply maintaining status quo might be a save if the only other alternative was lost ground.
Good leaders find value even in a loss. They may not like it and in fact, should not. But they can look at the loss and see the opportunity to educate and to reset things, if that is necessary. We should never "accept" a loss, but use it for what it is; a chance to grow.