Leaders Light Fires


flames background“HELP!  SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP ME!”

The desperation of the woman immediately caught my attention.  Seeking out the source of the panicked outcries my buddy and I found a very distraught woman frantically waving her arms at us in the middle of the alley.  Sensing the urgency of her need we sprinted toward her.

The emergency she found herself in was immediately apparent.

Smoke was billowing out the door of her basement suite apartment.  She tried desperately through her breath-stealing sobs to tell us what had happened.  At this point, all that mattered was to get her children out of the house, call 911 and do what we could to help.

My buddy and I charged into the house and saw the flames devouring the walls of her children’s bedroom.  It had not spread to the point where they were out of control, so we thought we could actually extinguish the fire.

Grabbing large cooking pots we filled them with water and began throwing them on the flames.  We pulled out any burning debris we could.  Our motivation was high, spurred on by the adrenaline pumping through our bodies, significantly accelerated by the woman’s non-stop screams of panic and distress.

The fear in the home was palpable – I could actually feel panic constricting my chest attempting to render me useless in the time I was needed most.

Thankfully we were able to abate the flames and save any further damage to the home.  The woman and her children were safe, and the fire department arrived to mop up the remnants of the destruction.

That experience, back in the early 1980s, was my first personal encounter with the destructive capability of fire.

We’ve all known the comfort and benefit of fire.  We live in heated homes.  We’ve sat around camp fires.  We eat food that’s cooked.  All of these life necessities are the result of fire.  We need fire to live.  Actually, let me clarify, we need fire within the right parameters to live.

Companies and organizations need fire to live as well.  They need fire within the correct parameters to live.  And that’s what leaders do…

Leaders light fires.

There are actually 3 kinds of fires leaders light:  Leaders light fires under people.  Leaders light fires in people.  And, sadly, leaders light people on fire.

Lighting fires under people is building a sense of urgency in people.  It is creating extrinsic motivation.  Extrinsic motivation is a motivation which is external in its nature.  That could be anything from profit sharing, to promised time off for getting a project done on time.  Lighting a fire under people can also be a kick in the butt of sorts.  It can be the identification of unmet expectations that could ultimately end in termination.

Lighting a fire in people is a higher form of motivation.  This is when a leader is actually able to create intrinsic motivation in those they lead.  Their people are internally motivated to do an exceptional job.  To intrinsically motivate people, to light a fire in them, entails visionary communication.

You cannot light a fire in people without touching their hearts.  Indeed, the only way to light fires within people is to touch and engage their heart.  This is precisely what motivational and visionary leaders do: they ignite the hearts of their people, inspire them, engage them and create an exceptional team of internally motivated people.

When you light a fire within a person you are lighting fires of vision, commitment, conviction, passion, purpose, identity and indeed, even life.

Sadly, leaders can light destructive fires as well.  Leaders can actually light their people on fire and burn them.  How?  Ultimately it is poor leadership that burns people: responsibility without authority, unrealistic expectations, overwhelming workload, no feedback, no encouragement, abusive communication, isolation, lack of direction, and myriad other leadership shortcomings.

It’s amazing though, how the basics of leadership can stoke the fires of commitment in people: care about them, treat them with respect and dignity, compensate them fairly, provide clear expectations for their behavior, show them the significance of their work and impart vision for where they and the company are going.

Yes, leaders light fires.  What kind of fires are you lighting?

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Leading and Living on Purpose.