Leaders as Fire Starters
by Chip Bell and John Patterson


Picture this. You walk out of the airport to take a taxi cab to the hotel. The taxi driver has a sullen look, seems completely disinterested in you, plays music you dislike, and talks to his buddies on his phone all the way. When you arrive at the hotel and ask for a receipt, he acts like he’s doing you a big favor and then frowns at the tip!

Now substitute the taxi driver for any one of your employees. Do you have employees who seem to hate work, drag through the day like they are barely alive, show the enthusiasm of a tree stump, talk to their buddies while ignoring customers, and then get irritated when there is no raise?
Mediocrity can usurp the energy from passion and the opportunity from initiative. Leaders who tolerate mediocrity signal that their real standards are much lower than what they generally state.  Organizations can in fact  be populated by ONLY winners.  The proverbial bell shaped curve of performance---that there will always a small percentage of superstars and an equal number who do just enough to get by--is neither an organizational necessity nor statistical requirement.

The leadership antidote to passion-free mediocrity may not be to change employees or telegraph your displeasure or even “crack the whip.’ Your employees may simply need to be inspired.   And, one of the key roles of a leader is to provide inspiration—to be a fire starter, igniting passion and commitment.   

Let’s revisit the taxi driver.  We have discovered that passengers can inspire drivers to give consistently great customer service.  It works like this.   The first step is your own Animation—choosing to demonstrate the attitude you seek from the driver.  Next, as you board the taxi, sincerely express you’re Appreciation (“Thank you for being my driver.”). Tell the driver your destination and ask if he knows the location.  When he says he does, deliver Affirmation (“Terrific, I am dealing with a true professional.”).

The final part is a bit delicate. Validation is helping the driver view his role in a larger light than just driving a taxi. Keep it upbeat and optimistic. (“You have probably helped a lot of people as a driver, haven’t you?”). Upon arrival, extend your hand for a handshake and then ask for a receipt.  You’ll be amazed at how many fires you can start. 

Animation:  Inspiring through Modeling

Animation is “the process of bringing to life.” We watch cartoons and are awed by the skill of the artist who can transform stills into life-like characters.  The late Chuck Jones, creator of such famous cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and Road Runner, wrote:  “The secret to making a character come alive is not how you draw that particular character.  It happens when everything in the frame moves with the character.” 

Leaders who are fire starters start by choosing to insert employee inspiration instead of seething about its absence.   Like the cartoonist, they do this by illustrating enthusiasm.  They make “everything in the frame,” including their own attitude, “move with the employee.” They strive to be the inspired role model they want employees to emulate. Davy Crockett was an inspirer at the siege of The Alamo in 1836. Coronal Jim Bowie wrote in a letter to Governor Henry Smith, “David Crockett has been animating the men to do their duty.” Remember:  it is impossible to light a fire with a wet match!  

Appreciation—Inspiring with Gratitude

“Thank you” is a phrase we all enjoy hearing.  Most people do not hear it enough.  However, instead of just saying the words, take one more step.  Let the person know exactly what he or she did that warranted your gratitude.  When we were eating at a restaurant our waiter had on a name tag plus an additional tag proclaiming him to be the “employee of the month.”  “Congratulations,” one of us said.  “What did you do to warrant such an honor?”  The waiter stood quietly and then said flatly, “I guess it was my turn.”   He had no idea what he had done to be recognized so he knew of no special action he was being encouraged to repeat.

A few years ago we were consulting with a successful company whose average non-supervisory professional employee was 27-years-old and earned about $100,000 a year!   Most were highly driven, Ivy League college-educated go-getters.   Yet, an employee-attitude survey revealed they regarded themselves as under rewarded.   At first we thought we were dealing with spoiled brats who had no idea how the real world worked.   But we were wrong.  "We know we are very well compensated," they told us.  "We just do not feel valued and recognized for what we do!"   They were living examples of Psychologist William James observation, "The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated."

Affirmation---Inspiring with Confidence
“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.

One of the single most powerful phenomenon in human behavior is the self-fulfilling prophesy (also called the Pygmalion effect).  Little is really known about why it works as it does.  However, your belief in your employees, demonstrated in behavior and attitude, has a major impact on their behavior.  If you believe a person is going to be a winner and you treat them that way, they generally do not disappoint you.   If you believe a person is going to be a loser, and you treat them that way, they generally do not disappoint you.   It suggests it is important how you communicate expectations through your actions.   

Even your tone of voice and emphasis on key words can impact what they hear and therefore interpret.   Think of the line:   “I think Bill can do it.”  Read the line six times, each time verbally emphasizing a different word in the sentence and notice how it alters the meaning.   This does not mean you have to censure every word you utter.  It simply illustrates the power of tone that reflects an attitude. 

Validation—Inspiring with Purpose

  • This is the trickiest part.  Leaders can change the content by expanding the context.   What this means is moving from specific to general can help someone view their world in a more optimistic, hopeful light.  This is a technique parents use to get a child out of a pessimistic view.   It is the positive version of “Well, you could be starving in Africa.”  Susie comes home fussing that Johnny is teasing her.  Her mother coaches her that Johnny doesn’t realize how very special she really is.  The intent is elevating the focus to a grander, more glorious view.
  • Fred Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx, continually reminds his couriers, “You are not just delivering stuff by 10:30 every day.  You are delivering precious packages.   You may be delivering an organ that will save a life, or papers that could save a company and several hundred jobs, or someone’s fiftieth wedding anniversary present.  You have a very important role—delivering precious packages.”  As a leader, you can play a similar role.  You have a chance to be fire starter—to inspire someone to deliver their very best.

Judy and Jane were working together in New York City and checked into a mid-town hotel one evening.  However, their approaches to check-in were completely different.  Judy warmly approached the desk clerk with a Steinway smile and a jovial disposition.  She made complimentary small talk with the desk clerk, making certain to use the desk clerk’s name which she eyeballed on his uniform jacket.   Jane took a more somber route with the desk clerk at the other end of the front desk counter.   Without a greeting, she put her credit card on the counter, filled out the paperwork in silence and departed with a room key. 

The plan was for the two women to go to their respective rooms, drop their luggage and then rendezvous in Judy’s room to go out for dinner.  But, when Jane entered Judy’s room she was stunned.  Judy had a suite four times the size of Jane’s typical hotel room, plus it had a great view of Central Park.

“How did you get this big suite?” Jane inquired of her colleague.   Judy humbly responded, “I wanted more than a typical room.  I knew the front desk clerk really wanted me to have it; I just needed to inspire him.”  But, the story did not end there.  When the two women returned from dinner, Judy’s message light was on.  It was the front desk clerk who had called to make sure her suite was satisfactory.  Jane’s message light was not on!  

Inside every employee is passion waiting to be ignited; excellence ready to be released.  Strike your leadership match—animation, appreciation, affirmation and validation—and be warmed by the results.


The Authors

Chip Bell

John Patterson

Chip Bell is a senior partner of The Chip Bell Group headquartered near Dallas.  Dr. Bell is the author of several best-selling books including his newest book Magnetic Service (with Bilijack Bell). 

John Patterson is president of Atlanta-based Progressive Insights, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations effectively manage complex culture change built around employee and customer loyalty.

They can be reached through www.chipbell.com .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives

Copyright 2008 by
Chip Bell and John Patterson. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading