Susan Foster

Conscious Leadership: How To Spot a Fireplug

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Arguing with a fireplug

Arguing with a fireplug

I had a problem with another organization when I worked in the Pentagon.

The problem definitely belonged to us–because no one in the other organization seemed to know they had a problem. And if they did—they did not care!

As I was discussing this with my boss, he told me the story of a General he knew who took over command of an Army post. A few years earlier, someone had put a fireplug right off the walkway, just a few feet from the door of his office. Since he was new, and wasn’t used to it being there, he came out of his office in the afternoon—not paying attention—and while walking to his car, he fell over the fireplug.

He skinned his shins, said a few choice words, got up and went home.

The next day, he was looking down at some paperwork on the way to his car to attend a meeting off post. He again forgot about the fireplug, hit it again, re-hurt his shin.

Now he felt a little stupid and a little mad.

The fireplug should not be there.

Then he realized: kicking, arguing with, or trying to persuade that fireplug wasn’t going to change a thing. And knowing that a decision to move it would cause a lot of other problems (money, time, water line disruptions, etc.), the following morning he parked his car in another space (not in line with the fireplug), and gave my friend the lesson he gave me:

Sometimes things are fireplugs. You can’t move them—you just have to move around them.

I got it. This other organization might be a fireplug, and I needed to solve this issue another way.

A client who I will call Amy had a boss who irritated her no end. In her view, he was argumentative and controlling, and made her feel that nothing she did was right. Actually, since I was coaching their entire team (totally confidential for each of them), I knew his point of view was quite different. He believed Amy to be incredibly talented, with potential for a great future with the company. He prided himself on mentoring her and “correcting” her so she could be a great executive one day. I also knew he had physical illness problems no one knew about.

I asked her to consider that if someone is a pain in the butt there is usually an issue there, and told her the fireplug story. Perhaps she couldn’t change him, but she could change that relationship by changing herself. Amy took an entirely different approach with him, asked for additional guidance and mentoring and it made a huge difference in her stress level.

Ben’s division lost a major customer right before he took over a year ago as manager. The former incumbent had a falling out with the customer (one of the reasons he was the former), and no matter how hard Ben worked at it, including apologies, he was no closer to getting this customer back than he was a year ago. I told Ben the fireplug story. Perhaps this customer, for now, was the fireplug. Time could change things (a change in management, etc.) but for now, perhaps he would be better off to use his valuable time, energy and resources on cultivating new customers.

The leadership lesson for me, and for them: When is it a fireplug situation? And how can I go around it?

I did that with the other organization. We found another way to work our problem out, and we moved on without the other organization. Too bad–they could have been a valuable player with us. But that wasn’t ours to own.

Do you have any fireplugs in your organization or business? In your life? Can you think of another path or way to solve it without them?

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