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Mitigating The Trap Of Being The Chief Fire Fighter.

Marwan Aljahani

Oct 9, 2021

CEOs movements are emphasized, enlarged, and create hidden waves of impact throughout the organization, and when CEO becomes a CFF (Chief Fire Fighter), the organization becomes nothing more than a consistent tennis match of threat and risks.

In my years of working with CEOs and leaders, i’ve been keen to observe the mindset of which they bring to the organization, the sense of self they craft in order to meet the demands of the role, and i’ve found that CEOs tend to shift between two sense of selves, the creative, and the reactive.

In the early days of assuming the position, most leaders come in with a creative mindset, this is a pre-determined, well planned and throughout approach that is carefully listening to the needs of the organization, seeing its higher vision, the bigger picture of all that is taking place, and moving from a place of responding, creating, and thriving. In here the CEO is maximizing the benefit of his prefrontal cortex, this is the part of the brain that is responsible for rational, clear and calculated thinking and active will. In this state, the CEO is grounded, calm, and in tune with the organization.

However, and in the VUCA ecosystem that most organizations operate in todays’ world, this mindset quickly shifts to a reactive mindset, that 60 minute slot that the CEO has planned in the morning to be able to go through the strategy, review, refine and develop. Quickly turns to answering urgent phone calls, following up with direct reports, circling back to the board, and a series of urgent red flashing signs calling for the CEOs attention, time and energy. Where the CEO quickly shifts from his prefrontal cortex to his amygdala, which is the part of the part in charge of sense of fear, in here the CEOs instincts around threat and danger are amplified and his actions become reactive and compulsive. When shifting to the amygdala goes unobserved, the CEO swiftly turns into the CFF (Chief Fire Fighter).

A study from Odgers Berndtson, an executive search company reveals that “ 63% of CEOs say they are reacting to disruptive forces rather than anticipating and leading change.”, it goes without saying that the switching back and forth between creating and reacting decreases the CEO efficiency, and seriously exhausts their emotional health.

In my work so far with CEOs, I invite them to gain awareness on these shifts that are happening, when do they sense themselves acting from a place of will power, control, and grounded-ness, and when they find themselves acting from a place of fear and frustration. It is important to note that reacting is not the same as responding, responding means to be in tune with what is happening. Our stake and role in shaping the outcome, and knowing what needs to be done and acting accordingly, on the other hand reacting is no more than throwing the ball back once it reach us, without examining the results of our response.

when Deepak Chopra was asked around gaining consciousness for leaders, he explained that awareness in what we feel, knowing what emotions we have and how they trigger out actions can make us transcend the reactive mindset, of which he calls the “biological robot”, which is when we act immediately based on our external triggers.

“ Override what people call stress, stress is not out there in the world, it is not within you. stress is your interaction with threat and your interpretation of it, go beyond being reactive, find your center of being, and respond accordingly”.