You can find leadership lessons in the most unexpected places.


W. Michael Phibbs

When most of us were still in grade school, the International Fire Service Training Association would send out picture, cartoons if you will, showing different skills and fire ground concerns that a Firefighter one and two must master. The pictures are reminders for how to do things right. While looking at a series of pictures, presenting differing concepts which cause the loss of water velocity in hoses, it was easy to see how the concepts of Velocity, Friction loss, and Critical Velocity could easily apply to the topic of leadership.

The IFST defines Velocity as the motion of a particle in a given direction and speed. These particles are moving at their own rates, speeds, and directions. Water particles moving at all directions and speeds cannot be effectively used to fight fire, or most other applications.  To correlate that with leadership:  When employees are free to speed around at different rates and directions they are not being efficient or effective.  Everyone is in motion, expending energy, however, with little results.  No one can tell you what is going on, why it is going on, or how their efforts are impacting 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, fire houses and other adaptors. As the water begins to be confined, redirected, and focused through a hose it loses specified amounts energy. Faster moving particles are slowed as slower particles are now pulled into a faster slip stream. Picture a fast moving sports car suddenly being caught in slower moving traffic congestion. The water particles now forced to move in the same direction and pace. Speed picks up while the path is straight, however, the turns slow the flow of the water particle. In some instances turns or adapters are intentionally inserted as check points to slow speeds and keep flow consistent. Unexpected turns may slow flow and begin to create bulges in the piping. The pipe may burst if there is a weak spot.

Initially, friction loss will also occur when leader starts to harness and direct a new team.  This point is especially accurate when the previous leader was perceived, by the group, as weak or ineffective Previously, employees felt free to do as they wished and may have exhibit the same characteristics of the free flowing water particle.  Some employees may have worked hard to complete the vision of the organization, while others performed at a level which allows them to keep their jobs. Through the creation of 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 individual. Leaders must take action to develop the team and to reduce the impact of individuals who resist change.  Effective leaders know when it is time 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. Little ripples begin to form inside of the pipe as the individual particles are stacked up and begin to swirl to keep velocity moving. Smooth efficient and effective flow of the water 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.  As leaders, we may put what may seem to be excessive pressure onto 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 adequate skills required for the job. As pressure to perform builds, the actions of an employee 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.  Without performance checks, trigger points, and known objectives and indicators, how does a leader know performance is effective? Does the team need to go at full velocity, low velocity, or go to neutral as preceding actions are completed? In most organizations, the organizational managers control the pressure leading into the hose, while 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, 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 the organization and employees are being effective.

When applying this lesson the midlevel managers must ensure they have chosen the correct targets, possess the ability to focus their team members, gauge effectiveness of effort, and apply to correct amount of pressure to meet the objectives. They must understand the causes of resistance and friction loss in teams, and know when it is time to slow or speed up the team.  Effective leaders know moving their team at full velocity all of the time is ineffective and rarely hits the target with intended impact.  Eventually, like draining a water tanker, the employees will be spent and unable to perform. The key to adapting and utilizing the IFTS velocity chart to improve organizational effectiveness can be described:

  • Velocity – provide direction but understand initially the velocity of the employees will change.
  • Slower employees may become uncomfortable being pulled into a faster slip stream. Faster employees will be slowed as they are constrained and directed.
  • Employees and supervisors, at all levels, must know what the end objective is. What is the target, and why is it important? What does success look like?
  • Too much initial pressure may cause turbulence in the hose.
  • Not enough pressure, or an open nozzle, and pressure is reduced. The team will not have the desired impact.
  • Accurate gauges are necessary to determine the correct pressure. Sometimes pressure needs to be increased, and other times released. How do leaders gauge performance?
  • Doing nothing is not an option unless you are willing to accept a specified level of destruction.


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 to people who want to be effective in increasing leadership positions. The ability to apply different experiences to leadership is only limited by one’s imagination. The broader our imaginations, the greater our capacity will be to break down our silos and create effective change in our organizations.