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August 31, 2009

candlemothAt any fire of appreciable size or severity, firefighters are faced with difficult choices, even if they aren’t always apparent to them or anyone else.  Often, the biggest fires go unreported the longest because all the witnesses assume someone else called the fire department.

At these sorts of fires, when the building involved is beyond saving, the firefighters themselves can become so fixated on it,  despite their inability to control it directly, that we refer to their wide-eyed enthusiasm for the fight as “candle-moth syndrome”.  Like moths drawn to a flame, they become so focused they forget the fire can only get bigger by spreading to other buildings not yet involved.  These exposures are where the real action is, and they represent the best opportunity to save anything.

In any organization, especially one in crisis, we can become so fixated on a problem that we loose sight of its context.  Losing sight of the people — be they coworkers, clients, or constituents — who are not yet affected but nonetheless vulnerable as a problem gets bigger or grows worse isolates us from important information about the situation, including potential solutions to the problem itself.

When we confront problems too big to handle alone, turning to others is not just our only choice, it’s sometimes our best choice.  Engaging others avails us not only of their expertise, which often yields fresh perspectives or new insights that get to the heart of the matter, but also their empathy.  We often need the support of others more when we fail than when we succeed.

Likewise, though, they need us.  They need us to explain ourselves.  They need us to demonstrate humility.  They need us to take responsibility.  And most of all they need us to learn from our mistakes.  And often they are more than happy to help us do this, if only we open ourselves to their advances and their advice.

Protecting exposures requires us to look at the effects of our actions on others rather than simply protecting ourselves.  This requires us to remind ourselves that the biggest problems arise not from the actions or inactions of others, but rather from our failure to maintain perspective when things do not go as we expect.


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