When I was a kid, I watched my father [hi Dad!] walk into a burning building. I was maybe 8 I guess? Our house backed onto a farm and (so the tale goes) some local kids had been smoking in the barn in the evening and it caught fire. Next to the barn was a little cottage where an old lady lived, with a load of cats – like a dozen or something – and she had refused to leave the cottage before all of them were found and she couldn’t find one and “what if it’s still in the house??!!”…
My dad wouldn’t claim to be “brave”, I don’t think. I imagine he’d consider himself much too sensible for daft ideas like that [he reads The Times, for crying out loud] but on that evening [probably with an “oh for fuck’s sake” under his breath if I know him] he walked into the burning cottage to ‘convince’ the lady she really should think about making her way out of the building sometime soon if turning into a roast old lady wasn’t in her immediate life plans.
Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that he came out, jostling the old lady in front of him. You’ll be delighted to know that all the cats had, of course, left the cottage some time before, because as we all know cats only care about themselves. My old man [who, come to think of it, would have been younger then then I am now: what a mind fuck that is!] was coughing and his face was black from the smoke and soot and my mum was really cross with him which at the time I thought seemed a bit unfair, because, you know, he was a bloody hero and all that.
And then the fire brigade turned up and we got to watch them putting the fire out, and it was very late and very exciting and I think I got to wear a fireman’s hat [although I might have imagined that because I’ve watched too much TV in my life and that’s the kind of thing that happens in a montage at the end of a TV program about a fire isn’t it?].
Up to now, I haven’t had the opportunity to save an old lady from a burning building [although I did have my bravery tested once – perhaps one for another time!] but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had fires to put out in my own way over the years. Oh no!
Because that’s what leaders have to do, right? Solving problems, making things better, fixing things. Filling gaps, plugging holes, and “putting out fires” [See what I did there?].
To be honest, I’ve never really liked the phrase “fire-fighting” when talking about work problems. It feels too reactive to me, like you’re forced to jump from the hottest, most urgent thing to the next, constantly on edge, constantly turning to find something else threatening to burn out of control. And so I think the phrase actually makes things worse, somehow. But I do get the association of course.
Because we know that, left unattended, problems are more likely get bigger and less easy to deal with, just like a fire, until they’re totally unmanageable. And because we know deep within us, through thousands of years of generations upon generations from our earliest times on our planet, that fire has huge power and fearsome energy. Not just in what it does – how it destroys all in its path – but in what it does to us as people.
Just like our ancestors before us, we’re drawn towards fire. It’s deep within us to fan it or fight it, and so all too often we find ourselves simply gazing into it, transfixed, lost in its dancing light.
And just like fire jumping from tree to tree and house to house, the closest possible proximity in which we’re forced to work in our overstuffed offices mean than even the smallest spark can catch, and grow and draw people in to fan or fight or stand and gaze once again.
But as much as we are mesmerised by fire, no matter how wondrous and fearful we find it, what we tend to forget is that the following day the ashes hold only a memory of the fire that once was, and hold no one’s interest for more than a fleeting moment before the winds of time disperse them. Every fire that ever was ended up as ash in the wind.
And so perhaps one positive thing that I’ve experienced through the maelstrom of Bloody 2020™ is that the forced virtual nature of work has meant that when problems do arise there’s more space for consideration.
I don’t mean there’s more time, of course; not when the line between home and work has completely blurred to the point that it’s not actually visible any more, and I’m working earlier and later than I have in many years because it’s not like I’m going anywhere, and yes it’s getting physically and emotionally exhausting, as the stark sharp split between the imitation intimacy of a video call and the silence when it ends is jarring in a way that as simple, social animals we were never designed to be able to comprehend so we feel somehow empty in the moment, like we’re mourning the human connection that felt so real just a few moments before… [shit, sorry, where was I?]
No, I mean that there’s more physical and emotional space between us – space between the trees, if you like, so fires don’t spread so inexorably. With a watchful eye, some even die out all on their own.
Because with that space, people can consider their actions and consider what they might have done differently. The shared experience of lockdown and everything that’s gone with it means there’s more space for considering what someone else might be going through as well.
And so it seems people find it harder to hold a grudge from afar. People realise that they miss each other, individually and as the office buzz in the background as they work.
Starved of the oxygen of incidental interaction, disagreements become distant, irritations become irrelevant, niggles become nothing. And thus the flames of conflict are dampened, free to fizzle out naturally, quietly, simply.
There’s a lovely quotation I saw recently from a French writer/Aristocrat which goes:
L’absence est à l’amour ce qu’est au feu le vent. Il éteint le petit, il allume le grand.Roger de Bussy-Rabutin
Which (as I’m sure you know) means:
Absence is to love what the wind is to fire: it extinguishes the small, it inflames the big.
I think that’s true, not just of romantic love but also of the companionship we all miss from our working relationships. The wind of absence has made the ones that were important to us before even more important now.
But perhaps the very same wind can blow out a lot of little fires of little inconsequential problems, too.
All without a fire-fighter to be seen…