When I was a very young girl, I had my first experience with Fire. And my family has never let me live it down.
While visiting family in New Orleans, my brothers and I had spent the night with my step-grandmother and my two aunts. Interestingly, my two aunts were the same age as my brothers and I , so our relationship grew to be more like close cousins.
It was early evening and I was in the bathtub washing up in preparation for bed. Meanwhile, my grandmother had been cooking in the kitchen.
All was calm in the house.
Just as I was emerging from my bath, I heard a scream…followed by the most terrifying word I had ever heard.
Apparently, as the oft-told epic goes: My grandmother had been frying some tasty dish that we would never get to eat. The skillet became extremely hot, enabling the grease to spit up thick smoke towards her face. In an effort to get rid of the spitting, smoking concoction, my grandmother attempted to pour the scalding grease down the drain. Somehow, the kitchen curtain hem touched the lava-like substance in the skillet, catching fire. She tried to put water on the grease-fed flames, but that only seemed to inflame the angry fire beast. It hungrily ate the curtains before turning its fury on the window sill.
I didnt know any of that at the time.
All I heard was one word.
Without another thought (really without even the first one) I sprang from the tub, running full speed towards all the commotion and saw that the kitchen curtains, engulfed in flames, were whipping about as if caught in a high wind. Even as a child, I knew the fire would spread.
At that moment, for whatever inexplicable reason my young mind had conjured, I decided to get out and to get help.
I ran outside and to the neighbor’s house beating on their door calling out for help.
The door opened and I blurted out to the couple in the doorway that my house was on fire.
At first, they just stared. What a sight I must have been: Completely wet and completely naked!
The mother quickly wrapped me in a warm towel while the father called the fire department and ran over to help. By the time the truck had arrived, most of the flames had been extinguished. However, they were able to finish the job.
The house suffered minor burns in its culinary region only. Once the house was safe to re-enter, my grandmother realized my 3 year old brother was not with the other kids. Calling his name frantically, she received no response. The firemen searched the house and discovered him hiding, terrified as a trapped mouse, under my grandmother’s bed.
The entire ordeal ended after a few hours, but we kids were still operating on a mixture of adrenaline, fear and relief. Our world eventually calmed, returning to a semblance of normalcy but we all slept (slumber party style) on pallets in my grandmother’s room.
That was my fire story. My family calls the streaking story. And, 50 years later, much to my chagrine, my “streaking through the neighborhood” continued to be fodder for a laugh at family gatherings.
As an adult, I have thought back to that night. Why did I take off into the dark? Why did my brother hide instead? In essence, my brother and I had very different reactions to a very real crisis.
As for me, I saw the threat and simply “reacted”. I did not think.
Without regard to my current state of undress or to the fact that I did not know the neighbors, I jumped to an action fueled simply by fear and the need to act.
My brother, fueled by the same fear, simply shut down. Without regard to the danger of hiding in a burning house, he simply went into a dark cave until the danger passed.
Both of our reactions were dangerous.
Because they were just that…”reactions”
Do you know someone who “knee-jerks” into reaction mode everytime a problem or crisis appears? Do you? At first glance, the reactors, appear to be “go-getters” or action heroes. Leaders who are reactors are often heralded as decisive, take charge generals who lead the charge for change.
I have actually heard a leader say…” do something…Even if wrong!”
The problem with reactors comes when all the facts of a situation are not readily available at that “take charge” moment. I have witnessed the fallout of following the orders of a reactive leader who didnt have all the facts.
The situation, rather than ameliorating, devolved into something much worse. That decision not only affected the company’s reputation, but also affected other human beings.
When I, ever the strong-willed child, dashed off into a strange neighborhood, in the evening, unclothed…I reacted without thinking. Unbeknownst to me, my grandmother had already called the fire dept and had begun getting everyone out of the house. I put myself in an extremely vulnerable and dangerous position…because, without thinking it through…I acted.
Simultaneously, my little brother, under-reacted. He shut down. Had the fire not been contained to the kitchen, his inability to make the decision to heed my grandmothers voice and leave the house would have been tragic. He would have remained in that frozen state of inactivity as the house burned.
The inability to make decisive action plans are as bad as reacting! A leader who cannot make a decision, sits decaying in his inactivity as the company’s issues. Like a raging fire. Burn all around him.
Sounds like I am double-talking?
Dont “not” react.
The answer is, as is often the case found in the continuum.
Addressing crisis, is not a do or die moment. Real resolution involves a series of steps
1. Get All the Facts!
Gathering all the available information on the situation becomes paramount for resolving the crisis. Have you heard from everyone with information on the current situation or crisis? Have you looked at whether or not the crisis has occurred previously? How did resolution come? What was tried that worked? What didnt work at all? Get the information!
2. Assess the Information Carefully.
Look at the information with a critical eye. Collect input from your team who might have gone through the fire before. Be open to ideas that are not yours.
3. Strategize your Action.
Think of the solution, not as a single leap, but as a roadmap to resolution. Discern the best path, visualizing the rewards and the consequences of each step. Involve team members who will need to “buy into” the plan, trickling positively down to line staff.
4. Take Action!
Implement the plan, and monitor the outcomes, allowing flexible alternative side paths if the main path does not go as intended.
Despite the number of steps involved in steering through a crisis, they can be navigated fairly quickly.
I hear you saying, ” what about those crises that cry out for immediate solutions?”
Think of them as an urgent care situation. A man walks into an ER bleeding from his head. A triage nurse quickly assesses how best to stem the bleeding of the wound. While saving his immediate crisis of loss of blood. the same nurse understands that the patch is a temporary one. The bandage buys time, allowing the doctor to assess and resolve the underlying issue. In your crisis, a bandage might be called for immediately to buy you some time to accurately address and resolve the issue.
My family will still tease me about my reaction that night. I used to be so embarrassed when family laughingly brought up the nighttime streaking of “cousin Angie”. But no longer. I can now join in on the good nature joking of a family who really are just glad we all survived.