Leaders build fires that warm, yet sometimes get burned by them

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

The statement is a classic, editorialized as only my father could do: “He who builds a fire warms himself twice — and sometimes burns himself.”

Well, at least the last part is his.

Our family loved fires in the den fireplace. What is more restful and tranquil than a cold winter’s evening, a crackling log fire, coffee brewing gently nearby, and the family lazily doing whatever?

But, by the time you get an old-fashioned fire laid — using dry softwood, scrap paper, crisscrossed splintered slabs, topped with large logs — you are warmed, if not hot and exhausted, from the labor.

Then you strike the match and watch the first brilliant blaze of paper. The softwood catches onto the plan and does its job, tickling the hardwoods above it. Soon the big logs get in rhythm with their role in the process and, like proud men busting their buttons, throw out heat that moves you to a more distant spot in the room.

But sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. The paper burns but the wood refuses. So you go poking around, repositioning first one log, then another. And sometimes, before you know it, you burn yourself.

“He who builds a fire warms himself twice — and sometimes burns himself.”

And that’s true in building fires in people, too, especially if you are a leader.

And who isn’t a leader in some areas?

Friends or family members come to you for help in addressing an issue. Or, perhaps you are head of an organization or business. Or you have an expertise or experience that makes your input valuable.

Folks seek you out for guidance, direction and leadership. In short, they need a fire built for them and in them.

And you do your best. You teach, stimulate, encourage and hope somehow to strike a flame of personal motivation within them. Often it works. The fire catches and burns. And you are twice warmed.

First, by stimulating and teaching others, you often learn more than you teach. Guiding others can be a laborious but enlightening experience as you struggle to find just the right elements for a good fire.

Second, it is a powerful experience to see the fire catch on, where the carefully laid words of advice have sparked independence and fueled growth. Others begin to self-motivate, and that warms you.

But sometimes, the plan backfires or doesn’t fire just right. And you get burned in the process. Sometimes the person to whom you give your best energies and most attention burns you after the process, if not during it.

Parents often get burned as they build fires of stimulation, motivation and expectation in their children. It happens also between husband and wife in marriage.

Yet every leader is in the fire-building business. We should anticipate being twice warmed and yes, sometimes burned.

It simply comes with the complex territory of leadership.