Imagine you are a wilderness firefighter and you suddenly see a wall of fire rushing towards you. What would you do?

A) Drop your tools and run for your life?

B) Stand your ground and use your tools to clear a safe area?
C) Hold on to your tools and move as fast as you can to the nearest safe area? 

Experienced firefighters chose option C in 1949 at Mann Gulch, Montana and in 1994 at South Canyon, Colorado—with deadly results. In all, 27 firefighters died within sight of safe areas when they were overrun by fast-moving fire.

Why did the firefighters hold on to their tools?

What can we learn from their behavior for our personal and professional lives?

Learning to drop one’s tools to gain lightness, agility, and wisdom tends to be forgotten in an era where leaders and followers alike are preoccupied with knowledge management, acquisitions, and acquisitiveness. —Karl Weick

Dropping Your Tools

Having the right tools in our toolbox dramatically increases our chance of success. However, relying on the same tool all the time will hinder performance. As the saying goes: “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Tools that we use repeatedly become deeply entrenched habits that are hard to change. Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University investigated the neurological reasons why. Once a habit is formed, our brains “reward” us with a burst of the neurotransmitter dopamine whenever we respond with the behavior dictated by the habit. This creates a craving which motivates us to repeat the behavior and strengthen the habit.

Let’s revisit the wilderness firefighters at Mann Gulch and South Canyon.

The firefighters were slowed down because they failed to drop their heavy tools. In some cases, victims were found still clutching their chain saws.

Firefighters are trained to look after their tools. Tools help them save lives. Experienced firefighters develop the habit of holding on to their tools. Most of the time, this habit serves them well. Dropping their tools means changing a strongly ingrained habit. But sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed.

Changing Personal Habits

Some researchers argue it is impossible to eliminate a habit. They say the best way to change a habit is to replace it with another (more effective) habit.

Let’s look at a real-life example of a team leader with the habit of Management By Walking Around (MBWA). With the precision of a Swiss watch, he appears in his team’s offices at 8:30 am to ask about their tasks for the day and again at 5:30 pm to ask how the day went.

His behavior is motivated by good reasons—to show that he cares about his team and to keep informed about their work. However, the habit of appearing at exactly 8:30 and 5:30 is not producing the desired effect. His team resents his controlling behavior: “He’s just checking on when we arrive and leave.”

Just like the firefighters, the team leader has the right tool in his toolbox. But his failure to drop the tool when needed (and change his behavior) is limiting his effectiveness.

In order to change his habit, the team leader needs to understand his motivation for relying on  the “tool” of MBWA.

Upon reflection, he may realize that MBWA makes him feel good because he enjoys connecting with his team. Having understood this, the team leader is free to look for other ways of achieving his goal.

He might decide to visit a team member at a different time each day (not 8:30 or 5:30). Or he could plan a team lunch or a surprise ice cream break.

In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired; in pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.” —Lao Tzu

Changing Organizational Habits

Habits shape organizations just as they do individuals. Many organizations are burdened by collective habits that were adaptive at one time but have long since lost their value. Yet these habits persist. What can leaders do about it?

Change one key habit first. Former CEO Paul O’Neill took over the helm at Alcoa in 1987. He announced that his top priority was to reduce work-related accidents to zero. At first, shareholders were not pleased that the new CEO was not talking about growth and profitability. However, O’Neill was convinced that by improving the safety habit, additional benefits would spread throughout the company.

Reduce fear and mistrust. When O’Neill made safety his number one priority at Alcoa, he also made clear that no one would be punished for bringing a safety issue to his attention. When confronted with fear or uncertainty, most people hang on to their tools and habits, however ineffective they may be. O’Neill deliberately promoted a “no blame” culture within Alcoa designed to reduce fear and uncertainty.

By the time O’Neill left Alcoa 13 years later, injuries had been reduced to one-twentieth the US average. But most strikingly, his relentless focus on safety had also transformed the organizational culture. Silos between business units were gone, productivity was higher, employee-suggested innovations were saving the company millions of dollars a year, and as a result product quality increased while costs fell. Earnings per share soared from $.20 in 1994 to $1.41 in 1999.

Alcoa competes in the highly volatile global market for aluminum and its financial performance varies widely as a result. The cultural transformation led by Paul O’Neill helps sustain the organization during good times and bad.


  • Changing habits means dropping your tools.
  • It is easier to replace a non-productive habit with a different behavior than to try to eliminate the habit altogether.
  • Understanding your goals can help you evaluate what other tools are available to help you succeed.
  • Leaders can change organizations one habit at a time.
  • Reducing fear and mistrust at work will create a culture where change is possible.

Former Alcoa Vice President Bill O’Rourke discusses O’Neill’s focus on safety first:

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Arndt, M. (2001). How O’Neill Got Alcoa Shining. Businessweek, Feb 12.

Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York. Random House.

Weick, K. E. (2007). Drop your tools: On reconfiguring management educationJournal of Management Education, 31 (5).

Images courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / CC BY-SA 2.0