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Leaders: Where There's Smoke, There's Not Always Fire

The smell was overwhelming; reminiscent of burnt popcorn, but substantially worse. It crept into our couch, carpets, clothes, and hair. Who knew that charred oatmeal was so toxic?The day started like any other. My child wanted oatmeal for breakfast, poured it into a bowl, and popped it into the microwave. Only this time, it was done on autopilot, and apparently, this autopilot forgot to add any liquid. Before we knew it, smoke was streaming everywhere, and we rushed to open doors and windows before the smoke alarm notified the entire neighborhood of our problem.In school, the homeroom teacher asked, “Is something burning?”My child replied, “I think you smell me.”I had the joy of staying home with the doors open to try to get a cross-breeze between my kitchen and the front of the house. Unfortunately, it was 34° F (just over 1° C). My teeth chattered, but the smell didn’t dissipate. Hours later, no matter how much air freshener I sprayed, it still smelled like smoke. The smoke lingered, but, thankfully, there was no fire.

How many times have you “smelled smoke” at work yet, somehow things got resolved before flames erupted?

I know I’ve worked with leaders who have spent most of their waking hours looking for issues instead of trusting their team to resolve things before needing to escalate.I’ve also known people who I swear are human lighters, heating things up and hoping that no-one notices that they’re the one who set things afire – again.Luckily, we can learn from burnt oatmeal four important lessons that apply to the world of work (and home) too.

4 Critical Leadership Lessons from Burnt Oatmeal

Just because there’s a flare-up, it doesn’t mean things are about to burn to the ground.

Our microwave didn’t explode, and the fire department didn’t race down our street with their sirens blaring.The people on your team will not always see eye to eye. Instead of thinking that high performing teams never have disagreements, know that they understand the value of productive conflict – working through differing perspectives to find a stronger solution. In the moment, it may be tense, but you’ll get past it.

The stench may belie the magnitude of the issue.

The burnt oatmeal smell was potent.Sometimes, your team may be churning, and you suspect that they’re about to go up in flames. Before you jump in, ready to throw water on the situation, take a moment to assess. It’s possible things aren’t as bad as they smell, I mean seem? Give people a chance to resolve matters without you before you jump in to fix things that may not need your involvement.Related: 10 Personal Leadership Lessons I’ve Learned from a Dog

Smoke lingers. When the issue is resolved, it may take time for things to return to normal.

Parts of our house still stinks, but the oatmeal incident is now nothing more than a memory. However, I suspect it will be a while, despite boiling orange rinds in the microwave, for it to return to normal.When people move past an issue either within the team or with your client, at school or at home, it takes time to recover. Recognize that the emergency has passed and give people a chance to catch their breath, regroup, and move forward.

Instead of placing blame, make things better.

I could have chosen to throttle my child, but I didn’t. Instead, I grabbed the bowl and threw it in the sink and ran the water. They felt terrible, my piling on the blame would only make things worse.As a leader, parent, or colleague, you can choose to focus on what’s going wrong or help to make them go right. Support people, intervene when needed, be the calm when everything s crazy and help everyone get through it.I want to be clear, sometimes smoke does require investigation. I’ve written in the past on fighting fires at work. It’s a big part of what leaders do. Still, there are times when the embers smolder and go out long before there’s damage. It’s a balancing act, knowing when to step in and when to stay out, but one worth mastering.