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Creating fire-walkers Featured

9:42am EDT July 22, 2002

According to my research, the practice of fire-walking began as a part of religious ceremonies. Many years ago, a number of religious beliefs centered on the worship of fire.

Some cultures believed fire was a gift from the gods. Fire-walking is still practiced in Tahiti, Trinidad, Mauritius, the Fiji Islands, India and Japan, among others.

In a typical fire-walking ceremony, a procession made up of a priest and other celebrants walks barefoot over a bed of hot coals. Any number of explanations have been offered as to why they’re not burned, or why they appear to suffer no pain. The general belief is that their extraordinary faith allows them to walk over flaming coals without suffering.

More recently, several prominent people in the motivational field have offered seminar participants an opportunity to fire-walk. The spectacle is intended to demonstrate mind over matter ... that it’s possible to mentally block out pain. I know of several people who claim to have participated, and they swear they experienced no pain — not even singed feet.

However, the fire-walkers I’m referring to here are the people in your organization who would willingly walk through fire for you and your company. I have never walked through fire, but I have worked for a few people who could probably get me to give it serious consideration. What makes these leaders so special?

First , they have earned a high level of trust. It’s difficult to unconditionally support a leader you don’t trust. Trust and respect go hand in hand, and trust is a two-way street. Unreciprocated, it offers little value. It can’t be developed through the use of tricks and gimmicks. It must be built on a solid foundation, and one of the best is to eliminate rules and regulations.

Rules and regulations tend to limit individuality, initiative and creativity. Even your better employees will often challenge rules in the name of their individual rights. In working with clients, I find that leaders who substitute values and principles for rules and regulations are far more successful in building a higher level of mutual trust and understanding.

In addition, most people would at least consider fire-walking for a leader who gives recognition for actual achievements. Too often, leaders believe they are motivating their people if they extend a generic pat on the back to everyone, regardless of the effort put forth and/or the results achieved. They are concerned they might offend the underachievers if they recognize individual accomplishments. This isn’t very effective, even in the short-term. If you acknowledge individuals for specific achievements, the recognition is far more effective, longer lasting and more appreciated.

I’m not suggesting you should actually expect anyone to walk through fire for you. But if you have even a handful of people who are completely committed to you as their leader, and to the organization’s purpose, you have a cadre of ‘champions,’ people you can depend on in an emergency and when you need them to take a leadership role in the implementation of a critical change.

So nurture your fire-walkers. They will be key ingredients in your long-term success.

William Armstrong, a management consultant for 30 years, is president of Pittsburgh-based management consulting firm Armstrong/Associates. Reach him at (412) 276-7396.