Living in a House Fire

A few years ago I was asked a startling question.  “Do you really enjoy going into environments where people aren’t getting along, things aren’t going well, turning things around and delivering?”  The questioner was a senior level IT leader, the closest thing that organization had to a CIO, and she would be the sponsor of the effort we were considering I engage in.  She would not let me qualify my answer in any way.  “Yes or no,” she would say as I tried to answer the question.  She kept saying “yes or no,” and I realized that, not only could I not answer that question with a “yes” or “no,” but that she was going to be very unpleasant to work with if I went forward with that engagement.

I went home and thought the situation over.  The next day, I called back and explained that it was a surprise to me that no one had ever asked that question of me in the over twenty years I’d been consulting.  When I thought about it overnight I finally realized that the answer was no, I do not enjoy going into situations like she described, though I often do go into such situations.

I realized that firemen likely do not enjoy rushing into burning buildings.  They are aware that they are putting their lives on the line, and they generally don’t know what they’re going to find inside or whether they’ll be able to prevent all the harm to human or non-human life that they would like to prevent.  Fires lay waste to life and property and generally that waste is needless had better forethought been applied.

Arsonists like house fires.  They start them and hang around to watch the burning.  Sometimes, I understand, they get caught in the fires they start.

I’m a firefighter, not an arsonist.  I don’t enjoy the fire. I enjoy helping to put it out.  I find the results of effective firefighting satisfying, in a sense.  I would really rather there were not so many fires, so much waste of human life energy that could be better spent solving the myriad problems facing us today.

This occurred to me again recently as I was walking my dogs to the park.  As we approached the entrance, I saw billowing brown smoke and a couple of neighbors running around a house at the entrance to the park.  Smoke was pouring out of two back windows that appeared to open on to the kitchen; the smoke smelled like a grease fire.  Two neighbors, a man and a woman, were running around the house yelling “Your house is on fire!” and banging on the walls and front door as I called 911.  The man kicked in the front door and entered the house just as a police car arrived.  The officer got out of the car and shouted “get out of the house.”  I heard the fire engine sirens, and took my dogs into the park and out of harm’s way.  As we exited the park about forty-five minutes later, the fire crew were in the mop up phase, and apparently most of the house had been saved, though the exterior paint near the kitchen was blistered.

Sometimes the engagements I take on look like house fires once the initial analysis has been done. Sometimes the situation is so bad that I wonder why people choose to stay—and why it was ever allowed to get so bad and to cause so much waste. Often there is so little productivity and such a high rate of unproductive conflict that it is likely that the participants or their careers are being materially harmed.  Over time I have come to realize that, sometimes, the people who stay don’t realize they have any option—and sometimes they see themselves as firemen.

Additionally, I have come to understand that, often, people have become so entrenched in the problem and fighting it with the same old solutions, that fighting the fire and fanning the flames become indistinguishable.  There is a relatively short window between the time you enter the fire and the time you become fuel, and it’s wise to keep that in mind—or develop a tolerance for extreme heat and the knack of coating yourself with asbestos at which point you may well have stopped being part of the solution to the problem, but, rather, tolerant of it.

It’s also true that in the last few decades, the context in which we do business has changed more quickly and more radically than our business practices have.  Gary Hamel, as one example, has much to say about, that.  But I have come to believe that, beyond the notion of developing new ways of managing, people need more palpable, vivid role models, actors on the everyday business stage who, like those neighbors, bestir themselves—get out of their comfortable homes when they see a neighbor’s house fire, run over, bang on the walls, shout encouragement to notice the fire and take action, and, if necessary, kick down the door and go inside.

I have colleagues who extoll the virtues of servant leadership, but will not enter a situation with the hallmarks of a house fire.  Perhaps they have not developed the right protective gear, the skills that effectively operationalize a leadership model that truly wakes up the inhabitants to the fact that they or their house are on fire—and that they can take action to stop the fire or save themselves and others.  Firefighting is hard work.  I understand that the reason firefighters so thoroughly clean their equipment when they return is to productively work off the adrenaline that rushing to a fire forces into their system.  Corporate firefighters have to develop similar mechanisms to take care of themselves, as well as building the skillset that protects them and delivers the service in the midst putting out the fire.

Ultimately, though, we are in great need of a wide number of examples to help us understand the way to go so that we do much less harm in the first place, the way to develop and apply the foresight that prevents the fire.  Where those examples will come from is not clear.  How they will be identified as examples, I am not sure, other than by acclaim in their communities.

For my part, I know of individuals who have done their best to walk this path and have found it exhausting to the point they finally become less constant in their efforts.  They have had to go into the fire alone and found that, ultimately, there was no one at their backs.  No one truly rose up from the ranks to help fight the fire and stand as enduring examples of the possible.  I believe this is because, to date, servant leadership has come among us as an aspirational philosophy without concrete mechanisms for implementation.  Business is pragmatic, and in the midst of the fire, we need real hoses, axes, visors, and boots to get us through the messy business of putting out fires.

The week of December 29th, InfoQ will be publishing an article I authored on this topic.  I will be alerting my LinkedIn community when that article is published.  I hope this article continues the work of alerting leaders and potential leaders living in organizational house fires to the work they must do to save themselves and the organizations that remunerate them.


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