One indicator that you are becoming a better leader is when you cross the threshold of being able to stop putting out fires and start planning instead. This is challenging for many leaders I work with. Whether it’s because of a high workload, fast pace, competing priorities, or poor time management, many leaders “don’t have time” to plan. However, the truth is that you don’t have time not to plan. Here’s why it’s crucial to stop putting out fires and start planning.

Are You Good at Planning? A Simple Way to Measure

Want to measure how successful you are at planning? Here’s the simple formula: the more fires you find yourself putting out, the more you need to step up your planning.

Put another way, planning prevents fires. Strong planning = fewer fires.

Why You Need to Stop Putting Out Fires

If you are constantly putting out fires, you’re sacrificing long-term pain for short-term gain. Sure, you’ll save time in the moment. However, by the time the fires break out and you need to handle them, you’ll have invested more time than if you had prevented them in the first place.

Consider this example:

Julio, a senior leader, was promoted into a new position with a new team. Between his desire to make a good impression and his tendency to be task-oriented, he dove right in. Instead of taking time to plan how he wanted to develop his team, map out some of his long-term goals, and create a plan to reach them, Julio had his team knock out some new projects. Not too long after, fires started to break out.

Because Julio never sat down with his team to asses their skills, he didn’t realize that many were unprepared to take on the projects he wanted them to complete. Mistakes were made, which resulted in re-work, additional inspections, and extra paperwork. He had to push his team to hurry up and devote extra time to train them, which was a burden for everyone. Morale and trust were down, and Julio had to find ways to rebuild trust with his team.

The projects that Julio wanted to focus on turned out to not be aligned with what the executive team was looking for. However, because he had already invested time in them, he was directed by leadership to both complete them and take on the additional priority projects. Julio was now understaffed and had to make time to hire new team members. He had to put in longer hours to get everything done but was constantly behind. Trust and morale broke down further as his team had to help pick up the slack. He also had to pressure other departments to make up for lost time, and this strained his relationships with them. And so on.

Unfortunately, examples like this are the norm. As you can see, the cost of not planning is significant. Fires are stressful. They drain time, energy, and morale. Had Julio chosen to face some short-term pain in order to achieve long-term gain, things could have gone quite differently. He might have “lost” time up front, but in the end, he would have gained significant time, trust, and peace of mind.

Start Planning to Prevent Fires

Beyond the technical aspects of planning, which I’ll cover in future posts, let’s look at three skills that will help you start planning:

  1. Do A Reality Check
    The first step is doing a reality check. Notice the pain fires caused (and are causing) you. Recognize the potential benefits and value of taking time to plan. Be honest with yourself about the importance of planning.
  2. Make Time and Just Say No
    You have to be willing to take time to plan before taking action. You’ll always find a reason not to make time, so just say no and block out time on your calendar. Some fires may have to burn for a little while longer. Some “priorities” might not be such high priorities when you put them in perspective. Make planning your top priority.
  3. Do Your Homework
    Get input from multiple stakeholders. Observe and take notes before taking action. Determine your long-term priorities, not just your short-term ones. Think through your plan. Write it down and break it into steps. Picture the end result and look at what it might take to get there. Consider potential fires and design strategies to prevent them.

The Beginnings of a Plan

Hopefully, you can start to see some ways that you can benefit from planning. As you make time to plan and start doing your homework, consider these questions:


  • What reasons do you come up with to not make time to plan? How will you overcome those reasons?
  • What current fires are a result of you not planning? What plans could you make now to put them out and keep them from coming back?
  • What payoffs could result from you making the time to plan?