Flight, insubordination, collapse, ruin, disorganization, rout. These words have resonated with military strategists for centuries. The wisdom and insight shared in Sun Tzu’s Art of War not only have transcended time in various fields but also have found their way into multiple organizations and professions, including the fire service.
“Now an army is exposed to six several calamities, not arising from natural causes, but from faults for which the generals responsible. These are: Flight; insubordination; collapse; ruin; disorganization; rout.
1. Other conditions being equal, if one force is hurled against another ten times its size, the result will be the flight of the former.
2. When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination.
3. When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.
4. When the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, and on meeting the enemy give battle on their own account from a feeling of resentment, before the commander-in-chief can tell whether he is able to fight, the result is ruin.
5. When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.
6. When a general, unable to estimate the enemy’s strength, allows an inferior force to engage a larger one, or hurls a weak detachment against a powerful one, and neglects to place picked soldiers in the front rank, the result must be rout.
These are the six ways of courting defeat, which must be carefully noted by the general who has attained a responsible post.” 
So, perhaps now you are the general or you aspire to be, and you have attained a responsible post. Congratulations. Now, pay close attention. From his opening remarks, the calamities Sun Tzu speaks of are not accidents that come with the job. They are the mistakes that are a direct result of the leadership (or lack of) in an organization.
Other conditions being equal, if one force is hurled against another ten times its size,
the result will be the flight of the former.
In Sun Tzu’s first calamity, the army is outnumbered 10 to 1 by the enemy. Not all departments can afford the safety and luxury of NFPA-compliant staffing and must make the response work with what they have. As the incident commander, you must first recognize the situation and honestly answer the question, “Do I have the staffing and resources to safely mitigate this incident?” If the answer is no or unknown, call for additional units and alarms. Call early. Call often. Next is the personnel’s muscle memory when it comes to their respective skill sets. If they are confident and sharp in their craft, you will never have to worry about hesitation let alone flight. This doesn’t simply happen on the day of the event. This is something that is prepared for well ahead of time. Our business is never if, our business is when.
However, there is more to flight than just being outnumbered or, in our circumstance, understaffed. Defined, flight is the act of fleeing or attempting escape. Now this calamity is not something we often see in our line of business; however, it does happen, and it is held in utter contempt. Many times, over, the odds are against us. However, we press on, striving to accomplish the mission at hand. While cowardice does unfortunately happen on the fireground and in daily operations, that is not the direction I am going.
Consider the posture we assume when arriving to a fully involved fire in a building that is known or thought to be abandoned. Do we make an aggressive attack on a structure that may or may not be tenable, or do we assume a defensive posture from the street? Now, being in a position where my decisions can be the difference between personnel going home to their families or making their final alarm, I’m not as quick with my decision making when it comes to size-up and I am fully aware of those that I lead disagreeing when my decision is to go defensive. As firefighters, we know fires in vacant and abandoned structures with no utilities simply don’t start themselves aside from acts of nature. However, does the risk outweigh the benefit? The oath, after all, was life and property.
What is needed to avoid the pitfalls of the decision-making process is a robust operational risk management policy that will assist commanding officers by increasing their effectiveness in identifying, assessing, and managing risk. Having a standardized process increases the fire department’s ability to make informed decisions.
If you currently have a standard operating procedure (SOP) on risk management that states something along the lines of, “We will risk a lot to save a lot… We will risk a little to save a little… We will risk nothing to save that which is lost….” and this is what you consider to be your risk management plan, then it’s time for an update.
Consider the word “plan.” As a noun, a plan is a method of acting, doing, proceeding, making, etc. As a verb (particularly an action verb), a plan is to arrange a method or scheme beforehand. If your risk management plan is the above, then there is no plan. There is no methodology. Your risk management “plan” simply rests on the decision-making skills of the officer in charge which equates to: You have no “plan.”
If the above defines your current system, what you have in place is random and individual dependent. Officers are expected to use common sense, which can be left up to individual interpretation. Decisions become uniformed and reactive. However, if you as a department adopt a systematic approach, decisions become methodical, informed, and proactive. Operational risk management is nothing new. There are many resources to help you create a system that best works for you and your organization.
When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination.
Defiance of authority; refusal to obey orders. We’ve never seen that in our business, have we? Discipline is often one of the most challenging issues leaders deal with. Rules, regulations, policies, and procedures are designed to provide the framework of the proper and expected behavior. However, when discipline must be enacted, it must be done so quickly and within the parameters of the set rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. The reasoning behind swift action comes from Robert Fleming’s Survival Skills for the Fire Chief. He says, “In such situations, timely action is required in the interest of correcting the inappropriate or unacceptable behavior of fire department members, while reinforcing the importance of compliance on the part of other department members.” 
What do you do when your line officers lose control of those they’re supposed to lead? You train them. If that fails to work, you replace them. In our litigious society, there is no excuse for ignoring unacceptable behavior. If you’re a leader who is reluctant to enforce rules and policy, (1) you shouldn’t have promoted and (2) take the demotion now so you don’t risk being sued later. If rules and policies are broken and it’s your job to enforce those rules and policies, DO YOUR JOB!
When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.
Collapse is defined as an instance of a structure or person falling down. In the case of Sun Tzu’s calamities, collapse refers to the opposite of insubordination. With insubordination, we see the common soldiers being stronger than their officers. With collapse, we see that the officers are too strong on their subordinates. Leadership is a balance of authority and compassion. We sometimes forget that we all started somewhere and that “somewhere” was not a full and complete knowledge and understanding of fire science, strategy and tactics, rules and regulations, and SOPs. Many of us learned by on the job training (OJT) or by being taught, mentored, and coached. When the above do not occur, we have set our personnel up for failure.
When the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, and on meeting the enemy give battle on their own account from a feeling of resentment, before the commander-in-chief can tell whether or not he is in a position to fight, the result is ruin.
There is so much information that can be gleaned from this calamity, so we will address the points in the same order as the original author. First, we see the demeanor and countenance of the higher officers: They have anger issues and are insubordinate (the second calamity). If there’s one thing my kids (those at home and at the firehouse) have heard me say time and time again, it’s, “Your actions do not just affect you. Your actions affect everyone around you.” Your officers must keep their emotions in check. If they can’t or won’t, this will pose bigger issues later at the station and on the fireground. Officers must:
– remain calm under pressure
– maintain a positive attitude
– support the upper levels of command
– support their subordinates below them
Second, when officers begin to formulate their own strategy on the fireground without the incident commander’s order or approval, they have essentially gone rogue. We call this freelancing. The actions of one or some have now affected everyone. The original strategy, action, or intent of the incident commander may now be in danger of failure. This can lead to the next calamity–Disorganization.
When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.
Unfortunately, it happens in many organizations nationwide. Individuals are placed in positions of leadership without the capabilities needed to lead. There are multiple reasons as to why this occurs; however, Sun Tzu refers to three separate areas that lead to disorganization. First, some of those in leadership positions are weak (morally, ethically, politically, etc.) and without authority. Influence is a two-way street, and like it or not, leaders influence positively and negatively. If you are weak in any of the above areas, your organization will be weak as well. Some may be fit for a position of leadership but lack the organizational skills needed to fulfill the role. This lack of organization will eventually manifest itself as disorganization within your department unless you adjust your skill set and become more organized.
Because communication is so vital to our existence, the ability to communicate well is critical for the leader and those being led. Sun Tzu uses the words clear and distinct regarding communication. Without clear, concise, and complete communication, disorganization will be imminent. The more rank you possess, the clearer your orders need to be–not only to those under your command but especially those to which you delegate authority (i.e., lower ranking officers). The modern military uses the term “Commander’s Intent.” Commander’s intent, to be successful on the battlefield, encourages subordinate leaders to use initiative regarding the execution of any mission. By design, it provides those leaders with the ability to deviate from a specific plan of attack if necessary while still accomplishing the ultimate desires of their commander. Much attention is paid to understanding this, so even in the chaos and the fog of war, officers can still use their initiative toward achieving the single goal. On the fireground, command strategy often fails due to varying management styles and task level interpretation that is other than the commander’s intent. If tactics are misaligned and uncoordinated, failure is inevitable. Additionally, if personnel on the fireground are unaware of the commander’s intent, freelancing will ensue, which leads to a loss of accountability. This falls in line with Tzu’s statement “when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men.” Let’s face it, we’re firefighters and we’re here to fix a problem. If an assignment is not given, you can bet we’ll find something to do, which leads to dangerous freelancing and a complete breakdown in accountability.
The last point revolves around order. If your crew, station, district, or department is disorderly and unorganized on the station level, what would you expect on the fireground? If you can’t be trusted to keep yourself, your uniform, your equipment, and your station orderly, how can you be trusted with the lives of your brothers, sisters, and customers? Always remember that the lazy firehouse slob never becomes the awe-inspiring fireground all-star.
When a general, unable to estimate the enemy’s strength, allows an inferior force to engage a larger one, or hurls a weak detachment against a powerful one, and neglects to place picked soldiers in the front rank, the result must be rout.
Rout is defined as a disorderly retreat of defeated troops. How do you estimate the enemy’s strength? You study them. Leaders are lifelong learners. As the leader and subsequently the incident commander, you are responsible for knowing and understanding building construction. You are responsible for knowing how to read the smoke conditions. You are responsible for calculating fire flows needed for extinguishing the fire. You are responsible for the strategy and tactics of preserving life and property. You are responsible for making decisions related to the above and estimating the enemy’s strength in milliseconds. Does that sound like a tall order? It is, and it’s the one you agreed to take on when you accepted that promotion.
The learning process within the fire service does not simply happen overnight. It takes an incredible amount of time and effort to master. To prevent rout, command gauges the situation or event and determines if the dispatched response meets the event’s needs. If the needs outweigh the response, then call for additional units to respond.
In addition to building construction, smoke conditions, fire flows, and so on, you must also know the capabilities of your personnel. Are your personnel trained and capable of mitigating every known emergency that can be thrown at them? If you said yes, then my hat’s off to you, but if you said no, then you’re not lying like the other person. Train and train often. Nobody ever got worse by practicing.
Every fire service leader has been, is currently, or will be exposed to the same calamities Sun Tzu wrote of. Although our dealings are not within the realm of war between two armies, we are certainly facing daily battles where lives hang in the balance.
Remember, these calamities are not mere accidents. They are the direct results of poor leadership. Should you find yourself as one who has attained a responsible post, take heed and learn from these invaluable pieces of wisdom. If you do, you will most certainly shine as a beacon of light to those you lead when they are in their darkest hour.
1. Moore, Marc A., The Art of War: The complete text of Sun Tzu’s classic compiled in this special edition with Frederick the Great’s Instructions to His Generals and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Sun Tzu, The Art of War. US: Sweetwater Press, 2004, pp. 60-61. Print.
2. Fleming, Robert S., Survival Skills for the Fire Chief. Tulsa, OK: PennWell Corp., 2011, p. 139. Print.
3. Tippett, Jr., John B., Creating Effective Fireground Communication. Fire Rescue Magazine, 2014, http://www.firerescuemagazine.com/articles/print/volume-9/issue-8/command-and-leadership/creating-effective-fireground-communication.html. Online.
Joshua Fowler is the founder and owner of Charge The Line Leadership, LLC, as well as a district chief for Beaumont (TX) Fire/Rescue. He is the program manager for the regional hazmat team and Technical Response/Recovery Group. He has 19 years of experience and has served as a rescue specialist and technical information specialist with Texas Task Force 1 since 2006.