Oct 30, 2006

Put Out the Fire

Couple of really quick housekeeping things first:
  1. I realized I didn't put any kind of ranking on the tv shows on my last post like I do on my movie reviews page (link to right).
  2. I realized no one cares anyway. So I didn't change it.
  3. I have heard that a couple of these shows are in trouble in the ratings, which should clear up my schedule soon.
  4. I didn't mention any of the Spring shows we watch -- 24, American Idol, Scrubs.
Now on to the post....

I was thinking recently about the jobs I have held. I am not counting teenage or pointless summer jobs (Ponderosa, AMC theatres, school board film library, Sea World). I am referring to real jobs. I have worked in four main industries: Government (UCF Student Government for 2 years), Education (2 UCF jobs, 2 teaching internships, substitute), Sales (Rhodes furniture), and Religion (church, BCM, Defender). As I thought about it, these four industries are pretty big deals in our country. And even though they may seem quite different, they are actually VERY similar. In fact, I can honestly say that I have either heard this following speech - or some variation of it - from people in each of these fields.

When you are faced with a situation with an unhappy or complaining person, it is important to think about this. You carry two buckets with you: one is filled with water, one is filled with gasoline. You have two choices. First, you can douse the fire this person is lighting with water, diffusing the situation and showing them there is nothing to worry about. Second, you can douse the fire with gasoline, causing it to flare up worse - and showing this person there is something to worry about. This shows them that there is disunity in the staff, that there are problems, and that they have an ally in their complaints on the inside. You should try to help put out the fires, not make them worse.

I have heard that exact speech several times. I have seen that attitude portrayed many times. It is a common practice in all four of those industries. How did it become so universal? Well, I know for one that John Maxwell uses it in AT LEAST one of his leadership books. Every leader loves that story, because it keeps the fire from reaching them, and it puts the responsibility for controlling fires on the lower staff members. However, after thinking about that mentality for a while this past weekend [don't ask how it started], I realized that I have a real problem with it. Actually, I have three problems with it, and they lead into each other.

FIRST - Fire is not always bad - Think about this. Fire is a good thing many times. No, when it is rampaging through the forests on I-95 and destroying homes, it does not seem so good. But, in addition to making such yummy steaks and burgers, fire has a lot of good uses. Here are a few.
  • It purifies. Fire is what is used to purify metals, to sterilize tools. It burns off the impurities. Busting out the Bible, it is what God will use to purify - and what He uses all the time. Gold, silver, steel all must go through a fiery purification process.
  • It cleanses. Nature uses these rampaging fires as a way to cleanse itself. Humans are not fond of fire burning their neighborhoods. But look at any nature show about Africa. The Serengeti goes through cycles of drought, fire, rebirth, growth all the time. The fire removes what the land cannot support. It is a useful thing for removing the excess. This is even used in a controlled manner by builders and developers as they clear land
  • It warms. Try spending a night outside during the winter without a fire (at least in those places that have winter). Fire provides warmth for people, for food. We can even see this symbolized through the romantic candles, that give a couple the feeling of warmth, of intimacy.
All of that is to show that fire is not always bad or evil. To immediately demand that someone put out a fire is to cut short something that may be useful or necessary. You need to be able to identify the fire: its type, its purpose, its potential. This leads into the 2nd point.

SECOND - The wrong people are giving the orders - On the road I drive every day to and from the kids' school there is a testimony to days of yore. Right next to Snow Hill Road, there is a large forest fire watchtower. It used to be that the rangers would sit in that tower to look for and get information about fires. It is not used much now, since most of that land is now full of houses. But it still stands for now. That tower reminds me of how most of the people in authority operate. They live high above the day to day operations, and ocassionally look out over their locale. If they see a glimmer of flame, they quickly send off their firefighting underlings to put it out.

But from high in that tower, it is hard to tell if that fire is a campfire, a bonfire, a glowing grill, a candle, or a wildfire. The person on the ground is the one that can identify the fire. They are the ones who should be able to tell what is a danger and what is not. They are the ones who can see if there is a dangerous amount of underbrush springing up, that may need burned off so that the trees don't get choked out. The lower level staff are the ones who can tell if it is an electrical fire, that will cause more damage when water is dumped on it. There also is a chance that the person in leadership is the reason the fire got started -- their ineptitude or laziness or poor decisions or selfishness.

The people in the tower just look out and see the trees, the "big picture." They have been told that getting your hands dirty is something you do when you get started, and then eventually you get big enough to get out of that. They become more useful "casting the vision" and "providing leadership." And they are scared of fire - because they cannot control it. It is something primal and wild and random and unplanned. So, like Frankenstein's monster, they chant, "Fire Bad."

THIRD - The end result is half-baked - As these fires are being put out, we are unwittingly putting out much more than a flame. We are killing off good ideas, passion, innovations. Think about it.
  • A church member is unhappy about the way the Church in general deals with special needs children. He comes to a staff member to voice that and is immediately doused. So he slinks off. Maybe, if that fire was tended better, he would have come up with an effective and helpful method of creating a Special Needs minstry. Instead, the problem (which was genuine) still exists, the member (who was sincere) is still frustrated, and the church missed the boat.
  • A mother does not like the way that her daughter in high school has never been taught how to write a paper. She goes to the assistant principal to mention it, and is doused. The teachers never require the students to learn to write, and those students are uneffective in college.
  • A young government page wonders why high ranking officials can take so many personal privileges with taxpayer money. He says something to his supervisor about it, and it doused. He's told that it is part of the process. That page grows up to be a Senator, and gets arrested after two terms for misappropriating funds - something he was taught early on was okay.
  • A saleswoman comes to her supervisor and says that her customers are coming back to complain that their products are breaking after six months. He asks if they have a warranty. Since they don't, they are told the company won't do anything about it - that is why they were encouraged to buy the warranty. The company never has to raise its standards of construction.
Do you think those things don't happen? In today's world, we love mediocrity. We don't want anyone to be too lazy or uninvolved, but we don't want them to be too committed either. Think about each of those fields.
  • In politics, we want our politicians to feel strongly about things that appeal to a lot of people - but not to offend anyone with anything they say. Why have they all moved to the middle?
  • In business, we want our young workers to be ambitious - within the guidelines. If they get too creative with their ideas, or too "out of the box," they become a threat.
  • In religious circles, we want our members to be there at events and services, to get involved in our established activities. But we don't want them to be too passionate about their faith or beliefs - or to voice displeasure or disagreement when they see things in the church don't match God's Word.
  • In education, we want parents to join the PTA and to send in money for stuff and to help their kids with homework, but not to get toooooo invovled. Those parents are labelled stage parents, and are seen as problems because they want the rules bent for their kid -- even if they are just wanting their kid to get the best opportunity possible.
As a result, we are stuck living out these lives of mediocrity. We wonder why there aren't any truly amazing politcal leaders, or so few visionary business people, or many truly dedicated teachers, or insightful theologians. Most of them probably got put out just when they got fired up. We see this in sports - where teams continue to hire the same guys (Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells, Phil Jackson) hoping they can recapture their old glory. Most of the new guys coach to not lose - they aren't gutsy and inventive.

Is there a cure? Who knows. I know that trying to get the people in power to change is not going to lead to a very satisfying outcome. I guess the lesson is that sometimes, instead of putting out a fire, we should try to let it burn and control it instead. See what it leads to, and if necessary put it out. But see what is up first. The other lesson is that if you get water dumped on your head, don't let it put you out. If you feel strongly about something -- something positive you have to share, or something wrong that needs to be fixed -- keep on trying, while being respectful of the leadership you are under. Don't give up - sometimes it takes a while for a fire to get going.

1 comment:

Greg said...

You're right, it does take a while for the fire to get going; as we know. Thanks for the post, it was needed.
Now, were did I put that bag of oreos and marshmellows?