Inputs, Outputs, and Outcomes: Management and Leadership

Firefighters climbing an aerial ladder
Photo by Tim Olk

Tailboard Talk: Leadership Is Based on Outcomes

by Dane Carley

When a crew responds to a full arrest, they are one of many moving parts and circumstances that influence how the patient does or does not survive. A fire crew often works in conjunction with a 911 caller, dispatch center, law enforcement, EMS, and the emergency room at the hospital. This means dozens of people, and does not include surgery rooms, which include dozens of other people, the nursing team during recovery, and, so on. The performance of all of these components is ultimately measured by the patient’s outcome. All of the components are inputs with outputs specific to their specialty, but the success of the entire operation is measured by outcomes. For example, the patient’s quality of life after all of those steps is an outcome that is the ultimate measure of all of the inputs and outputs. There may have been tasks within the operation that were different than normal or that could use some improvement, but ultimately the focus is on the patient’s outcome.


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On the other hand, crews’ performance at a fire is measured in inputs and outputs. Even though there are assisting agencies, they are often overlooked at a structure fire when measurements related to the fire are evaluated. The fire service looks at turnout time, response time, effective response force, gallons of water flowed, etc. There are few, if any, departments that use an outcome measurement similar to the patient outcome described above. Fire departments do not typically have an overall measurement, such as fire contained to the area involved on arrival or number of days after the fire a business reopens. Because of how fire departments typically measure fire response, the building can burn down (an outcome) even when all of the input and output measurements meet a standard established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), accreditation, or ISO.

This dichotomy is a great analogy for the difference between leadership and management. Both are helpful, even necessary. It is possible that an organization could even continue to exist with only one or the other, but the strongest organizations use both.

Management is more akin to how the fire service measures performance. Management is important because it is a necessary skill that helps everyone from firefighter up prioritize tasks and organize the day to complete the day-to-day tasks of a fire department. Our job reinforces management skills because prioritizing and organizing tasks at an emergency is what we do. Managers can look at a calendar or schedule and move crews around to their assigned tasks with ease. Managers will provide feedback to their subordinates based on the number of inspections or training hours the crew has completed. A manager will review a turnout time report and address any deficiencies with direction to reduce the time. All of these are important to the daily operation of a fire department.

But because a manager is task-focused, the people under their supervision are likely struggling if that is the only “leadership” style a supervisor uses. Managers may have a hard time seeing how their guidance on outputs overlooks the bigger picture of outcomes. For example, a crew may have a longer turnout time during the summer because they are training, but the training ultimately results in better outcomes for the public. Or a manager may complete an annual evaluation by noting all of the times a captain needed guidance while not recognizing that overall the captain was an asset to the department. Or a manager may hound a captain for not completing reports promptly, all without recognizing that the captain is the one who the other firefighters seek out for advice or knowledge because they are so technically adept, which is why their paperwork is slower to be finished. The captain may be the one who others consistently choose to be a teacher because they recognize him or her as the resident expert. Or the captain may be the one the manager fails to recognize is the officer who he or she does not worry about on a run because the manager knows the captain will handle the situation well.

The difference between a manager and a leader is that a leader recognizes the outcomes. A leader recognizes that the captain is the advice giver, the resident expert, or the captain he or she trusts to do the job well in all situations. That is because the leader is looking at the outcomes—the big picture items that emerge over time instead of being focused on the day-to-day tasks. A leader forms an holistic description of a subordinate, peer, or supervisor. Often these are not as defined as the description a manager may form because a leader’s description is based on outcomes instead of inputs and outputs; there are not as many directly measurable outcomes as there are inputs and outputs.

These differences can be seen or heard in how a supervisor writes and speaks. For example, a leader describing a captain will write or say: “John is great with people. He connects with them and tries to understand their problem so he can solve it for them.” Or: “I never worry when I hear E12 dispatched because I know the problem is going to get better with Jane in charge. She is knowledgeable and wants to make things better for the person having an emergency. I know when I show up after her at a fire that she will have laid a good plan I can build upon.” There are indeed very specific inputs and outputs that contribute to that description of a subordinate, but the leader overlooks the turnout time that took 10 seconds too long by department standards because the overall service the subordinate provides—the outcome—exceeds department standards in every other way.

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On the other hand, a manager describes a subordinate very differently. The focus is largely on accomplishing tasks. For example, a manager writes or says: “John meets his turnout time objective 90 percent of the time and his annual training hours objective 100 percent of the time.” Even if John does both of these things, it does not mean that John is providing excellent service to the community, because those are output measures. Those numbers tell a reader that John is meeting a standard—meeting them well in fact. But it does not tell us that John knows anything about what he is doing or whether he works well with others. An extreme illustration of this is a fire department that can put 50 highly certified firefighters and officers at the scene of a single-family dwelling fire in less than eight minutes to meet all of the NFPA, accreditation or ISO expectations, but burn it down every time because they cannot work together as a team. All of the inputs and outputs are there but the outcomes suffer every time.

Difference Between Output Focused Management & Outcome Focused Leadership

Managers Leaders
Day-to-day outputs Quarterly or annual outcomes
Focus on the short term Focus on the long term
Transactional Transformational
Task focused People focused
2-dimensional thinking 3-dimensional thinking
Linear thinking Abstract thinking
Mission focused Values and vision focused

An Example

There are a lot of possibilities for examples, but one that involves a potential disciplinary action is one of the easiest to draw a distinction. Let us say there is a firefighter who has come to work about 30 minutes early for 10 years. This firefighter shows up early, places his gear near his seat on the engine as soon as he arrives, changes into uniform so he is ready to go, and then sits at the table and catches up on the previous shift’s day. One day his alarm does not go off because of a power outage—his cell phone was dead and his backup alarm was not on because of the power outage (I know I am not the only firefighter who sets at least two alarms for work.)

A manager would approach this situation very simply. The firefighter is late so he will receive a formal disciplinary action (input) to change his behavior (output). But did the firefighter’s behavior change? The firefighter will likely comply with the disciplinary action and avoid being late again, so it would appear to the manager that the firefighter’s behavior changed. But there are at least two other considerations a leader would evaluate before making a decision to discipline.

First, a leader would take into consideration the previous 10 years of above-average performance and weigh the effect of formal discipline. A leader is looking for a commitment to change the behavior (an outcome) and not just compliance. A firefighter committed to changing his behavior will, in this case, arrive to work on time without displaying any other negative behaviors in retaliation. A leader will still recognize the firefighter’s tardiness by discussing it with him but also recognize the previous 10 years of above-average performance, which does two things. It shows the firefighter that the supervisor pays attention to the positive things people do day in and day out and it shows that the supervisor takes those positive things into account to find a balance. This builds a commitment to change instead of just compliance.

Second but related to the first, a firefighter who arrives early for 10 years but receives discipline from a manager will become defensive and, as an example, may start arriving to work only one minute early, which places the other firefighters going off shift in a poor position. Or the firefighter may decide that if going above and beyond does not mean anything to the manager, then he will do just the minimum in other aspects of the job. A leader takes that into consideration in an effort to avoid retaliatory behavior. It is technically correct, by most fire department policies, to discipline a firefighter for being late the first time. But a leader, thinking about outcomes instead of just outputs, considers the extenuating circumstances and how avoiding formal discipline, in this case, can build positive behaviors that have long term benefits (outcomes).

Finding A Balance

Being an extreme version of either is not beneficial. Outputs are important—having a decent turnout time is a critical piece of providing overall quality service to the community—an outcome. Measuring outputs—the right ones—helps people improve their outcomes.But those people who are trying to improve need to know what a good outcome looks like. A leader can provide that description because that is how a leader thinks. In a perfect world, the same person can describe good outputs that directly support good outcomes.

Unfortunately, the fire service tends to reinforce our management skills at a much higher rate than our leadership skills. Building a strong combination of both is what makes excellent departments stand out over the average department. This means supervisors must simultaneously think on two levels at all times—the managerial day-to-day level while also looking at long-term goals that extend out a year, five years, and even 10 years or more.

The first thing a leader should do is establish what is important over the long haul. Using the department’s values, a leader defines traits and behaviors that are important in meeting those values. The traits and behaviors are not those measured in turnout times and frequency of meeting objectives. The relevant behaviors and traits are people skills and holistic on-scene performance that other companies strive to emulate—behaviors and traits that are not easily measured but are quickly recognized as important. The behaviors and traits are those that help a company live the department’s values and vision. Some examples include:

  • Empathy for citizens that drives the crew to find a viable solution even when it is outside of their normal responsibilities
    • Putting non-injured accident victims in an apparatus when it is cold or dangerous until other help arrives
    • Helping with a water leak that is not an immediate threat to property but outside of the skill level of the person who called
  • Respect
    • Taking the time respect cultural differences (when it is not a life-threatening situation)
    • Treating lift assists like it is firefighters’ parent or grandparent
    • Treating everyone equally whether it is a regular drunk or a first-time 60-year-old showing signs and symptoms of a massive heart attack
  • High performance
    • The company that other companies ask for training
    • The company that the training division requests to train new firefighters or all firefighters on a new skill or method
    • The company that seems to make things better just by being on the scene

Starting at this level helps the leader establish which management measurements—outputs—are important for meeting the desired outcomes. The outcomes tell the supervisor what is important in the big picture and define which inputs and outputs will help a company best achieve the outcomes. What type of training outputs are measured? Is it a total number of hours per year or is it hours spent in relevant, high-quality training? For example, an officer may be technically proficient, someone who excels on a scene, but their people skills prevent them from being good leaders. That person does not need excessive hours of fireground skills training; that person needs leadership training and education, namely an output that improves outcomes. That is an outcome that affects the department five or more years down the road, as the educated member can teach subordinates leadership skills through modeling who will then be promoted to do the same.

How to Put It to Work

This approach helps the supervisor focus on what is important. Is a person perfect every day? Absolutely not; not a single person in a department can be perfect every day. A leader will see that those days do not fit into a normal pattern of behavior. There will be days where a subordinate does not demonstrate the highest levels of empathy. There will be days where a subordinate is stressed out, maybe about something not even work-related, and does not show the level of respect that is expected. These instances need some coaching, but more importantly there needs to be some probing to ensure there is not a bigger problem with the subordinate contributing to the changed behavior. Keep in mind that formal discipline may not be productive to attain a desired outcome if the behavior is an anomaly.

In this sense, the supervisor focuses on day-to-day tasks to establish a pattern so that he or she can recognize abnormalities from the pattern. The leader approaches these abnormalities from a long-term perspective after identifying a specific trend or root cause in the abnormalities. On the other hand, a manager simply addresses the single regression as a stand-alone incident and then moves on until the next incident happens.

A leader is looking for a root cause whereas a manager is treating the symptoms. If a subordinate is experiencing a rough stretch, a leader looks at the several incidents as a whole and tries to find a common denominator. The leader then talks with the subordinate and ensures no external influences are contributing to the detrimental behavior. On the other hand, a manager gives a verbal warning for the first incident, a written warning for the second incident, a suspension for the third incident, and so on. Each disciplinary action will likely gain some temporary compliance, but since the root cause is not being sought, it will only be temporary.

Bringing It All Together

Going back to the opening example of a patient walking out of the hospital, employee development is very similar. Not every task at every full arrest goes exactly as scripted in the textbook. Likewise, not every subordinate will perform outputs perfectly each day to attain an outcome. But, that is normal. Even encouraged because we learn best from our mistakes.

Take a captain, a company officer, for a specific example. A captain provides daily feedback to crewmembers, possibly even more frequently. It is often in the form of coaching but it is something that helps the crewmembers work toward that captain’s idea of a good firefighter; something that defines a good firefighter in the captain’s mind. This daily coaching is at the management level in the sense that it is focused on day-to-day activities. But if the captain coaches with an outcome in mind then it is also leadership. Where do we most often see this in writing? In annual performance evaluations.

Most annual performance evaluations are written in encompassing terms and descriptions. These are often focused on general behaviors and traits. A good captain will likely have specific examples to support their interpretation of the firefighter’s behavior and traits, but the general context of the writing is broad because it summarizes an entire year of behavior; it is the full arrest patient walking out of the hospital. This is the leadership level, because it is the captain describing outcomes with specific examples to support it that are outputs taken from day-to-day activities.

Unfortunately, we often find ourselves focused on the day-to-day activities—the immediate outputs—and only focusing on describing the outcomes occasionally, if at all. A good leader has the outcomes in mind constantly. A good leader is using the day-to-day outputs to reach an outcome. It may even mean overlooking some lesser outputs, particularly when the leader is trying to shape a specific behavior.

Dane Carley has been in the fire service since 1989. He spent 24 enjoyable years pulling hose, throwing ladders, cutting line, and teaching in a variety of capacities and places before being promoted to battalion chief in 2013 for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. He has had the chance to serve in urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness areas working for city, county, state, and federal agencies over the years. In his spare time, he cowrites for Fire Engineering magazine, coproduces a radio show for Fire Engineering Talk Radio, and coteaches leadership classes that support higher-reliability organizing in the fire service.


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