Courage Under Fire

(image via Joshua Newton)

(image via Joshua Newton)

There are certain lessons I sometimes need to re-learn. One big one is this. Once I know someones story it is almost impossible for me to not to hold them in the highest of regard. Such was recently the case.

I was running a leadership program in partnership with the University of Western Ontario. It is a long-term, first-class effort for one of their biggest clients. My job is to teach change theory. And bless their hearts, both the client and UWO allow me to do some very wild and unorthodox programming. In the section on leading with courage, I pull from my circus past. Metaphorically underscoring the leap of faith that is often times the mark of true leadership, I teach participants to eat fire!

It is out there, but the client loves it and it is very, very effective. I might also add that the risk is largely perceived rather than real. Imagine the event. Forty people, one by one, cheered on by their classmates, coming up to the front, lighting a torch and extinguishing it in their mouth. Most, when done are jumping in excitement. All are inspired. It is an unforgettable evening of power, motivation and shared risk taking.

About half way through the evening a woman walks to the front to take her turn. She is very nervous. What strikes me is that I simply don't recognize her. I have been working with the group all day, and yet I can't recall seeing this woman in my class. To me, she has been, until this moment, literally invisible. Also, she is shaking. I am thinking, "I hope she has the courage to go through with this."

She leans over and whispers, "I'm only going to put the flame in my mouth once." This instead of the three-four times that everyone else is doing and then extinguishing the flame by closing their lips around the lit torch. "I'm terrified", she adds, as if it is not evident.

"Don't worry", I try to reassure. "I will keep you totally safe". Then she says something which will forever change my definition of courage.

"When I was a child" she quietly murmurs, "I set myself on fire, including my hair. I don't allow fire of any kind in my home. No candles or gas stove. I have never even lit a match."

Dear lord. How could I have not seen this woman who was about to put the deepest of trust in me? This was an act of monumental proportions.

I instruct her to tell the group what she whispered to me. There are audible gasps from a few, respectful silence from the rest. She steadies herself, focuses on the flame with narrowed eyes and puts the torch in her mouth--slowly, calmly, with no hesitation. She does it cleanly and perfectly. Then she stuns us all and does it again!

The group erupts into wild, spontaneous applause and a standing ovation. The "invisible woman" in a few seconds has turned into the hero of the group. She is unforgettable to us all. Tearfully she returns to her seat, forever re-writing her life and the lives of all who witnessed this remarkable moment. Later she reports that afterwards she immediately called home, to a family in disbelief and joy. She has, in the most public and powerful of ways, put to rest a long and painful demon.

I am not sure what it is about the human condition that makes us leap to conclusions and justify our pre-conceived judgments. I just know that the next time someone appears invisible to me, I will remember this courageous woman and her act of heroism. I will pause, call up the look in her eyes when she fearlessly confronted her terror and try and learn more of the yet untold story.

Inspiring PeopleDavid Baum