What water velocity can teach about leadership
By applying the lessons learned from velocity, friction loss and critical velocity, leaders can get their teams moving in the right direction
I recently had the opportunity to talk about leadership with a volunteer firefighting organization. While one of the co-instructors was presenting, I happened to see an old poster on a wall.
When most of us were still in grade school, the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) would send out pictures and cartoons showing different skills and fire ground concerns that a Firefighter I and II must master. The images are reminders of how to do things right.
As I looked at a series of pictures presenting differing concepts that cause the loss of water velocity in hoses, I began to consider how the concepts of velocity, friction loss and critical velocity could easily apply to the topic of leadership.
IFSTA defines velocity as the motion of a particle in a given direction and speed. In firefighting, water particles moving at all orders and speeds cannot be effectively used to fight a fire. Similarly, in organizations, when employees are free to speed around at different rates and directions, they are not efficient or effective. Everyone is in motion and expending energy with little results. No one can tell you what is going on, why it is going on, or how their efforts impact the bottom line. In this case, the impact on an organization can be enormous. Without direction, an organization can expect low morale, employee apathy and a limited organizational lifespan.
Friction loss is pressure loss while forcing water through pipe fittings, firehoses and other adaptors. In firefighting, as the water begins to be confined, redirected and focused through a hose, it loses specified amounts of energy.
Similarly, when a leader starts to harness and direct a new team, friction loss will occur. This point is exceptionally accurate when the previous leader was perceived by the group as weak or nonexistent. Previously, employees felt free to do as they wished and may have exhibited the same characteristics of the free-flowing water particle. By creating the commander's intent, goals and objectives, setting boundaries, and holding members accountable, employees become constrained and forced to move in the same direction. Through the newly developed command climate, members can condense and work as a team or continue to resist and act like individuals.
Leaders must take action to establish the team and to reduce the impact of individuals who resist change. Influential leaders know when to slow or speed up the team. Anticipating the shifting environment of the organizations, leaders begin to make specific changes and turns, the equivalent of inserting a pipefitting or adapter, to alter the velocity of the team. When weak spots are found, the leader must take immediate corrective action to prevent a rupture. As a leader, our job is to constantly monitor the piping to ensure we do not have weak spots or take actions to mitigate the problems.
Critical velocity is turbulence caused when a stream is subjected to excessive pressure inside of a pipe. In firefighting, little ripples begin to form inside of the pipe as the individual particles are stacked up and begin to swirl to keep velocity moving. The smooth, efficient and effective water flow is reduced as the particles churn in the pipe. A larger hose, different nozzle, or reduced pressure can reduce the effects of critical velocity and increase effectiveness.
Similarly, as leaders, we may put what may seem to be excessive pressure on our teams. There is nothing wrong with placing pressure on people to perform; however, placing too much pressure, too quickly can cause turbulence; this is especially true of an employee who does not possess the adequate skills required for the job. As pressure to perform builds, the actions of employees will become more frantic, eventually impacting the flow of the rest of the team.
Too much pressure behind a water stream can be as dangerous as no water flow. Too much pressure and a restricted flow at the nozzle head may cause the water to miss the intended target.
How does a leader know performance is effective without performance checks, trigger points, and known objectives and indicators? Does the team need to go at full velocity, low velocity, or neutral as prefatory actions are completed?
In most organizations, the organizational managers control the pressure leading into the hose. At the same time, the first-line supervisor is the nozzle opening and closing to reduce or increase the flow of the team's efforts. If not enough pressure is placed into the hose and the nozzle is opened, then the water simply drains out; similarly, without effective leadership and management, employee energy can be as easily wasted. The key is to monitor the performance gauges, using observed performance standards to ensure that the organization and employees are effective.
Velocity lessons in action
Applying these lessons, mid-level managers must ensure they have chosen the correct targets, possess the ability to focus their team members, gauge the effectiveness of effort and apply the correct amount of pressure to meet the objectives. They must understand the causes of resistance and friction loss in teams and know when to slow or speed up the team. Influential leaders know moving their team at full velocity all of the time is ineffective and rarely hits the target with the intended impact. Eventually, like draining a water tanker, the employees will be spent and unable to perform. The key to adapting and utilizing the IFTSA velocity chart to improve organizational effectiveness can be described as:
- As a leader, you need to provide direction to your team but understand initially the velocity of the employees will change.
- Slower employees may become uncomfortable being pulled into a faster slipstream. Faster employees will be slowed as they are constrained and directed.
- Without direction, an organization can expect low morale, employee apathy and a limited organizational lifespan.
- A new leader should expect some resistance from employees who are used to doing things their way.
- Leaders need to establish clear objectives and boundaries to get everyone moving in the same direction.
- Effective leaders know when to slow or speed up the team.
- Placing too much pressure on employees too quickly can cause turbulence.
- Leaders need to understand the causes of resistance and friction loss in teams and know when to slow or speed up the team.
- Effective leaders know how to gauge the effectiveness of effort and apply the correct amount of pressure to meet objectives.
Leadership lessons can appear in the most unexpected places. The ability to keep an open mind and scan the environment for opportunities to learn is critical for people who want to be effective in leadership positions.
Effective leaders can learn from any situation, even firefighting. By applying the lessons learned from velocity, friction loss and critical velocity, leaders can get their teams moving in the right direction, establish clear objectives and boundaries, and apply the correct amount of pressure to meet objectives.
Applying different experiences to leadership is only limited by one's imagination. The broader our imaginations, the greater our capacity to we will have to break down our silos and create effective change in our organizations.