Smoke Is Your Friend, Fire Is Not!

It was the first cold night in the Fall of 2009 and my family wanted a fire. We did everything as usual, stacked the wood, put paper underneath, opened the chimney flue and started the fire with a match. We were sitting in the family room with the TV off so we could talk. It was probably 5 minutes later, when I heard popping noises coming from the fireplace. I got up, looked carefully, and couldn’t see anything wrong. I went outside to investigate if the popping noise was on the outside of the house. Nothing could be seen or heard outside, so I went back inside. I sat back down and heard popping again. Now both my wife and I were looking while our three-year-old daughter sat on the coach. Then we saw it! There was a bright glow on the side of the fireplace. My wife asked, “Is that inside our wall?” I was stunned and replied “I think so!” I told my wife to watch the glow from inside and I went outside to check on the house again. This time, I saw a deep red/orange circle burning through our house siding. I yelled loudly “The house is on fire!” I ran back inside and saw tons of smoke at the top of the ceiling. The smoke detectors hadn’t gone off yet. My wife had no idea because she was looking at the fireplace. I gave clear instructions, “The house is on fire. Get your phone, wallet, our daughter and get out of the house!” I called 911 and reported the situation. The smoke detectors went off finally which confirmed what we already knew and made the situation even more intense. I had my family drive down the street and get away from danger. I went back in to grab some personal items that could not be replaced. In about 5 minutes our entire right side of the house was engulfed in flames. The fire department arrived and did an awesome job putting out the flames and our home was saved. After 5 months in a hotel, we were able to move back into our home weeks before our second child was born.


I’m thankful that we had warning signs to alert me that there was a problem even when I couldn't see it. I did investigate but the problem was not easy to be seen at the first glance. My wife helped me find the issue when she started looking intently. The smoke gave us a clear sign that we had to move quickly and get out before the flames took over. The smoke was our friend, the fire was not!


What does this have to deal with leadership or business?



In leadership and business, there are warning signs like smoke and popping noises, but you must pay attention. By looking into those warning signs, you can prevent a greater disaster or injury by making quick decisions.


Here are 5 steps I took that day that can be applied to leadership & business:

  1. Stop & Listen

  2. Investigate

  3. Give Clear Instruction

  4. Move Quickly

  5. Get Help


Stop & Listen

Thankfully that night, we had our TV off, so we could actually talk and hear the popping noises which alerted us first about the fire. We all got quiet and took time to listen carefully. In leadership and business, you must stop and listen when you hear something off. Don’t ignore what you are hearing. Yes, it might lead to nothing, but it also might unveil a bigger problem. It’s critical you don’t ignore what you are hearing because you are busy or don’t want to be inconvenienced.



You now need to take time to investigate what you have heard. You might need to check a few times to get a clear understanding if things are okay or if you have a problem. I didn’t see the issue at first, but I kept looking. It was with my wife’s help that we discovered where the problem started. When you can’t see the problem, bring someone else in and ask them what they see. You might see the same thing, or you might get a different view. Ignoring what you are hearing can cause more and bigger problems for you as a leader and for your business.


Give Clear Instructions

When the house is on fire, you can’t sit still and do nothing. You must give clear instructions to the people in the house, office, etc. that need to know what to do. My wife, daughter and I were all scared. I had to stay calm and still give direction or we all would have panicked. My wife needed me to give her insights on what to do and where to go. A leader’s voice should bring calmness not more chaos to an intense situation. My wife new exactly what I wanted her to do, and she did it.


Move Quickly

Sometimes you have plenty of time to analyze, process and strategize. Other times you don't because it's a crisis situation. I had to quickly decide that the situation was way bigger than me. I had to grab my wallet, phone, charger, car keys and what could not get burned up. I grabbed our wedding album and my wife’s late brother’s tribute book. Life doesn’t always give you time to strategize and plan how you are going to attack the situation. Sometimes you are thrown into a live or die situation at work. A good leader stays clam but moves quickly to help protect the business and team.


Get Help

I had to call 911 to get the fire department to the home ASAP. The house was literally on fire! If you feel your business is on fire, then you must call someone. Do not try to fight the fire alone. I have brought in coaches and consultants to help me put the business and leadership fires out. I was embarrassed to see the entire neighborhood watching my house go up in flames and even mad when I heard kids chanting “BURN! BURN! BURN!” I didn’t react but watched and prayed. My family was safe and no matter what happened next, I did everything I could in my power to help. Now it was up to others to help me. There is a time to wait but when you smell smoke, move quickly before the fire takes over.


It was a few years ago when I started using the phrase “Smoke is your friend. Fire is not!” Why? I was talking to Steve Scherer, VP of Sales at CCB Technology & Impact of Leadership, about a situation where I felt there was a need for investigation. The phrase came out of my mouth to make a point that you still have time to fix the situation when smoke is in the air. However, when fire shows up, there is a very good chance you could get burned. Don’t wait for fire to show up and decide you should do something. It often times is too late when fire is in the room. We all must protect our house and business by paying attention to the warning signs.



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