The Fire Triangle – A metaphor for leadership

Deryck

Margaret and I make an interesting team. Despite the miles between us – she’s in the US, and I’m in the UK – we’ve found a way to bring our different, yet complementary strengths and interests together. I bring my passion for nature, sustainability, rewilding and survival skills to the table, while Margaret’s expertise in neuroscience, habit change, and leadership development adds a whole new dimension to our work. Together, we’re on a mission to ignite leadership potential in everyone we work with.

Margaret

Growing up together, we managed to balance each other out. While Deryck was busy exploring the great outdoors and mastering survival skills, I was diving deep into books and discovering the intricacies of the human brain. Now, even though we’re on different continents, our shared goal of fostering sustainable leadership keeps us closely connected. Combining Deryck’s practical survival skills with my passion for leadership coaching creates a powerful synergy.

THE FIRE TRIANGLE AND LEADERSHIP IGNITE

Deryck

I was fortunate to grow up in Southern Africa, spending a lot of time in Nature in the African bush. The ability to light and sustain a fire is a critical skill for life in the bush. It’s not as easy as you may think. Fire provides many things in the bush, from safety from wild animals to sterilizing water, cooking food, providing warmth and light, improving mood and signalling your position for rescue. In certain situations, your fire ability could determine whether you survive or not; it’s quite literally life-saving. Fire can be your best friend or worst enemy, raging out of control, consuming everything in its path. “You’re playing with fire!” How you manage fire determines your success or failure.

A core principle my father taught me is the fire triangle – heat, fuel, and oxygen. All three have to be present for a successful fire. Remove one of them, and the fire dies. The same could be said of people.

There are many ways to light and sustain a fire, but all of them come back to knowledge, skills, and available resources. The more you have of these three criteria, the more options you have at your disposal, and yes, there are different fires for different applications. Not all fires are equal. Expanding your knowledge and skills enables you to match available resources to the environment you’re in to start and sustain an applicable fire. It makes no sense to start a bonfire if resources are scarce, just as it makes no sense to have a small, stealth fire in lion territory (assuming non-military, permissive environment application). This simple yet powerful concept can also be applied to leadership, helping to build and sustain good habits and effective personal leadership.

Margaret

From a leadership and neuroscience perspective, the fire triangle concept is equally powerful. Just like in the bush, where heat, fuel, and oxygen are essential for a fire, leaders need to provide vision, resources, and support to ignite and sustain team performance.

Let’s start with Heat: Vision and Motivation. Neuroscience shows that clear, achievable goals and a compelling vision activate the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine, which boosts motivation and focus. Leaders who share a strong vision can inspire their teams, just like the spark needed to start a fire.

Next is Fuel: Goals and Resources. Just as different fires need different fuels, leaders must provide the right resources for each task. This means setting clear goals and ensuring the team has the tools and support they need. Research from the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that clear goals improve performance by giving direction and purpose.

Finally, Oxygen: Support and Environment. A supportive environment is crucial for maintaining high performance. Neuroscience research shows that psychological safety—the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment—boosts creativity and problem-solving. Leaders need to balance giving autonomy with providing oversight to create a culture of trust and continuous learning.

Understanding these elements helps leaders create a balanced environment where teams can thrive. Just like a fire, removing any one element can cause the team’s motivation and performance to fade. By applying the fire triangle concept, leaders can effectively motivate and manage their teams, ensuring sustained performance and growth.

Deryck

In fire lighting, heat can come from many sources. From an open flame (lighter/matches) to a spark (ferro rod/flint and steel/electric) to solar ignition (various ways of using the sun), friction (bow drill/rubbing sticks), and combining chemicals. Some are quicker and easier than others. All are dependent on the type of fuel (material to burn) used and the presence of oxygen. Lighting a gas barbecue with a lighter is probably the easiest example of fire. The lighter provides the spark and heat, the gas an easily combustible fuel, and oxygen is plentiful outdoors. The question is, if you need to cook meat to kill possible pathogens and don’t have a lighter or gas, what do you do?

The most valuable tools in a survival situation are your knowledge and skills. Your knowledge and skills empower you to maximize the use of the resources you have at your disposal, finding innovative ways to solve complex challenges. The same applies to leadership. The better your knowledge and skills, the better your chances of solving complex challenges.

Margaret

From a neuroscience and leadership development perspective, vision and motivation are indeed crucial. Research shows that the brain responds well to clear goals and rewards. Setting clear, achievable goals and sharing an inspiring vision are key strategies. Rewards can increase motivation, but it’s important to understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within; it’s driven by personal satisfaction, curiosity, or the desire to grow. This type of motivation usually lasts longer and leads to higher engagement and satisfaction.

Extrinsic motivation is driven by external rewards like money, recognition, or promotions. While effective, it might not be as lasting as intrinsic motivation and may not bring the same level of personal fulfillment.

Knowing what drives each team member, both intrinsically and extrinsically, is vital for good leadership. Taking the time to understand what motivates each person helps create a more engaged and productive team.

Deryck

Next is Fuel: Planning and Strategy. Just as a fire needs the right kind of fuel to keep burning, leadership requires effective planning and management of resources. Different tasks need different resources. Your choice of fuel is the combination of the resources available within the environemnt you’re in and the type of fire you need. Quick burning twigs and sticks work to boil water but not to provide prolonged warmth. A fire required to burn throughout the night to prevent hypothermia requires thicker, slower burning (harder), more sustainable firewood. The number of times you need to get up to replenish the fire throughout the night is directly relative to the wood you choose, directly influecing the quality of sleep you have.

“Pouring petrol” (gasoline) on the fire (over-control or micromanagement) may cause an impressive, explosive fire that burns quickly but is not sustainbale. What is the purpose of the fire being ignited? Match the resources, knowledge and skill accordingly.

Ongoing motivation is key, a fire needs to be tended to sustain. Similarly, developing a clear plan, delegating tasks wisely, and providing the right level of motivation and support are crucial in leadership.

Margaret

In leadership development, planning and strategy are about matching resources to tasks and keeping motivation high. Key leadership skills here include setting goals, managing resources, delegating tasks, and being adaptable. Developing a plan that aligns resources with goals, delegating wisely, and avoiding over-control are essential. Leaders should be adaptable, adjusting their approach as needed, and provide the necessary training, tools, or support. Also, creating clear, practical plans that the team understands and reviewing these plans together ensures that the ‘fuel’ of motivation and resources lasts. This approach keeps the initial spark of motivation alive, leading to long-term success.

Deryck

Lastly, Oxygen: Support and Practical Application. Just as a fire needs oxygen to burn, employees need room to operate without being micromanaged, breathing space. Too much control smothers initiative; too little leads to chaos. Balancing autonomy and oversight is essential. Encouraging growth and creative thinking through a supportive environment is key. Providing autonomy, avoiding micromanagement, and fostering a culture of feedback and learning are crucial for a healthy work environment.

Margaret

Support and practical application in leadership mean balancing autonomy and oversight. Giving employees the freedom to take ownership of their tasks while being available for support creates a productive environment. Encouraging continuous improvement and making sure employees feel safe to take risks is vital. Regular feedback, recognition of achievements, and opportunities for professional growth strengthen this environment. Effective communication and delegation are crucial, as they build trust and ensure everyone understands their roles. This approach keeps the team motivated and innovative, empowering employees to grow and contribute their best ideas while feeling supported by their leaders.

THE CRITICAL INTERDEPENDENCY OF THE FIRE TRIANGLE

Deryck

Lighting a fire is one challenge. Sustaining it is another. It’s relatively easy to start a fire. Hold an open flame from a lighter to dry paper, and you have a fire. Paper burns quickly, so what will you feed the fire with next? Successfully sustaining a fire requires planning and management of resources. You need to collect enough fuel to maintain the fire for the required length of time before you light the fire. Looking for firewood while you are trying to maintain a fire is not a good idea.

A burning fire needs to be constantly monitored for safety reasons. Lighting a fire only for it to go out due to a lack of fuel or oxygen can be incredibly frustrating, especially in inclement weather and especially if your fire lighting resources are limited, which they normally are. A dying fire, that has enough fuel, can be resuscitated with gentle blowing, providing more oxygen. The more you provide, the greater the flames.

Just as a fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen to burn, effective leadership needs motivation, resources and support. Removing any one of these elements will lower an employee’s performance, possibly extinguishing their fire altogether.

Leaders need to carefully balance these components to keep their teams motivated, effective and productive.

Margaret

Using the fire triangle metaphor for personal leadership development creates a clear and simple framework for motivating and managing others effectively. By balancing vision and motivation, planning and strategy, and support and practical application, leaders can inspire their teams to achieve their best. Integrating survival techniques adds a hands-on, practical element that reinforces the leadership lessons. Additionally, this metaphor helps leaders understand the critical interdependence of these elements, emphasizing that removing any one component can diminish overall effectiveness. This comprehensive approach not only drives performance but also fosters a resilient and adaptable team capable of thriving in various environments.

Studies highlight the importance of balancing clear vision, strategic planning, and supportive environments in successful leadership. Companies with strong leadership practices often outperform their peers in financial performance, reinforcing the idea that integrating these elements is crucial for sustainable success.

Campfire at the edge of a tranquil lake at sunset.

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