Home Leadership Five Ways Firefighting Made Me a More Effective CEO

Five Ways Firefighting Made Me a More Effective CEO

by Guest Writter
Bobby Campbell Founder & CEO, 3 Interactive and Adkarma

Ten years ago, I took two big risks: I founded my first digital media startup company and became a volunteer firefighter. It was a difficult decision at the time. At the same time I was launching my first company, I was making a commitment to one of the most highly regarded volunteer firefighting organizations in the country. I found that becoming a firefighter helped me become a more effective CEO and disruptive entrepreneur.

Here are five lessons I learned:

1. Recognize fear and master it.

Being a firefighter can be exhilarating and terrifying. When we walk into a fire, we’re physically and mentally under stress. Our gear is heavy and hot, and our oxygen mask impairs our vision. Our instinctive response is to leave, but we learn to face those fears and push forward.

I don’t face life and death as CEO of 3 Interactive, but the experience as a firefighter helped me learn that denying my fears isn’t as effective as facing them. When you’re running a company you need to accept your fear and stay focused on what you know how to do. Only then can you deconstruct what you’re afraid of to devise a plan of action. I learned to use those same techniques in my business—whether it’s a big pitch to a Fortune 500 company or working with my team to answer a client’s question.

2. Master the art of tackling emergency situations.

As firefighters, we are often faced with emergency situations. When we’re called to a scene, we don’t know the hazards. We could face fire, fuel, unstable vehicles or multiple patients with injuries that range from minor to life-threatening. We’re taught to quickly assess the situation, develop a plan of attack, neutralize hazards, prioritize care and assign resources. How we react to these situations can mean the difference between life and death.

Crises in a startup aren’t much different. In the digital world everything moves constantly—24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Things can quickly go wrong and you can lose a lot of money in a short amount of time. When facing these challenges, I think like a firefighter: assess the situation, break down the problem into tasks, and quickly assign resources to manage each task.

3. Establish fluid, but functional command structures.

When we arrive on an emergency scene, firefighters rely on an Incident Command System (ICS) to setup command structures in emergency response situations.ICS helps commanders establish a command structure on the spot and assures that no one commander is overloaded with responsibilities. It allows each commander to continue to make effective decisions.

Leading a startup is like living in a constant emergency. There’s always a crisis, and the number of people and situations you need to manage is constantly growing. By applying the ICS approach to my companies, I built a management system that stimulated growth while minimizing mistakes and overload.

4. Look for weak spots.

Sometimes we arrive on the scene with more than half of a building engulfed in flames. You wonder how much you can do to stop its progress. But even a giant, raging fire has weak spots. Once on the scene, we use science, data and strategy to find those weaknesses and use our experience to put the fire out.

This helped me realize that even the biggest, most intimidating industries and companies have weaknesses. In the business world, those weak spots are often opportunities to monetize disruptive technologies. By applying technology and resources to weak spots in a business model, CEOs can generate business opportunities from the coming disruption.

5. Life is fragile, and your business is just one piece of your life.

As a firefighter I often meet people on the most difficult days of their lives—when they’re facing death, sickness, tragedy and destruction. I’m reminded how precious and fragile life is—and how quickly it can be cut short.

As a CEO, it’s easy for your business to become the sole focus of your attention. But my life as a firefighter has helped me keep perspective on the important things, and how we have a limited amount of time of this earth. I’m committed to the success of my companies, but I know when I look back I won’t remember what our numbers were last month. My memories will be of trips to the pumpkin patch with my parents, Sunday dinners with my grandparents, and going to the park with my sons. Being a firefighter has helped me become a better CEO, as well as a better father, grandson, son and friend.


About the Author

Bobby Campbell is a successful entrepreneur with a deep understanding of how to monetize emerging digital markets. He’s CEO and founder of several leading digital media companies including AdKarma3 Interactive and Division D. Campbell graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in Creative Writing and Political Science and is a volunteer with the Boone County Fire Protection District, the largest volunteer fire department in Missouri. You can follow him on Twitter @BobbyAdkarma or connect with him via LinkedIn.

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