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Firewalking: Five takeaways for leaders

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I recently had the opportunity to observe a group of people do firewalking as a team-building exercise.

The experience made me think of these words from the introduction of my book, The Leaders Inner Source:

What “inner source” does the leader go to for wisdom and guidance in making decisions on an unconscious level […]? […] Do we know how to tap into that latent source inside us when our analytical minds and strategic abilities fail us?

And how do we engage with those we lead – only with our heads or also at a deeper level? Can we engage with others from that special place inside ourselves and allow them the space to do the same?

Staring at a hot bed of coals and deciding whether you’re going to walk over them doesn’t make much sense to our analytical minds. You have to engage with a deeper level of yourself to decide how to respond.

Witnessing firewalking reminded me of the seven leadership dimensions that my PhD study uncovered and here I share the five leadership lessons that I took from the experience.

  1. Be fully present

All the team members at the firewalking event were fully present in the moment. The exercise left us little other option but to be mindful, the first leadership dimension. Even I who didn’t participate was keenly aware of the sensations in my body, soul, and spirit.

Some people were clearly nervous, and their bodies were showing it. The adrenaline was pumping.

Even more interesting was what was happening in the realm of the soul (mind, emotions, and will) and spirit. Many people see firewalking as a mind-over-matter exercise. More accurately, it is an exercise of mind over emotions.

On the level of the body, heat doesn’t travel very well between coals and the soles of your feet, so if you walk over the coals fast enough, you’re unlikely to burn. However, to do that, you must win a battle of your soul: your mind must overcome strong emotions such as fear and uncertainty to muster up a strong will to complete this exercise.

When it comes to the spirit, some people experience firewalking as a spiritual event while others don’t. Historically, it was practiced as a religious exercise, but these days it isn’t, especially in western societies. As someone who believes that every person is essentially spiritual, I was keenly aware of the spiritual atmosphere during the firewalking exercise. However, my colleague who was with me and who shares many of my spiritual views didn’t experience the spiritual atmosphere the same way I did.

It reminded me that each of us needs to discern what is right for us and act accordingly. Part of this is to create the space for those who believe differently than we do to live true to their convictions.

That starts with being mindful of what we are experiencing in our body, soul and spirit.

2) Awaken to new potential and infinite possibilities

Several participants told me that firewalking reminded them that we are capable of more.

As one person put it:

I have been afraid of fire my whole life, and the idea of walking on fire petrified me.

Pushing through was a breakthrough in concurring my fear. The courage to walk on fire made me realise that I can accomplish anything that I set my mind to.

In the future, I will turn my fears into energy to accomplish my goals.

My colleague mentioned that the experience reminded him that we were made to do more than what we tend to settle for. What seems impossible now can become possible if we’re willing to expand our minds.

These takeaways speak to leadership dimensions of inspired creativity and creating infinite possibilities. As leaders, we should always challenge ourselves to see and believe more: in ourselves, the future, and others.

3) Act in line with your vision

If you decide you’re going to walk over that bed of coals, your best chance of not burning is to have clarity of direction, another leadership dimension I discuss in my book. You must know where you’re heading and not falter on the way.

Clarity of direction is also about inspiring your team.

The team leader who had organised the event had to conquer the same fear and uncertainty as everyone else to take his first step. The leader set the example and showed his team what is possible by going first.

As leaders, we not only cast the vision. We must go beyond words and inspire others with our example. Even if it’s hard and even if there’s fear, if you take the first step and continue in the journey, others will believe in you and your vision for the future. It’s your action that inspires people to follow along.

4) Create space for others

It’s not only the leader who gets to inspire others. The team also inspired each other.

Everyone was cheering each other on. Some people who at first did not want to participate became motivated to do it too.      

While this is a good example of non-hierarchical leadership at play, I believe there’s also another side of the coin to consider: to create space for others who don’t view things the same as we do.

All sixteen people on the team ended up participating in the firewalking event. If all of them did it because they felt it was the right thing for them to do, that is wonderful. However, we can never know whether that was the case. Did anyone possibly go home and regret the experience? They are unlikely to ever tell anyone on the team, especially not their leader.

In our organisations, we tend to value participation and people who “get” the vision. But do we create safe spaces for people who don’t?

According to the fifth leadership dimension, unconditional engagement, we should value people intrinsically because of who they are as human beings. Value and worth should not be based on people’s behaviour.

In an organisational context, it’s easy to do the opposite: to coerce adherence to the values and desires we want. Unfortunately for us, it doesn’t work in the long run. When people are coerced, they disengage, and productivity tanks.

As leaders, yes, we must inspire our people to be more. However, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that we can decide what that “more” is for another human being. Our role remains to inspire, not to force or coerce. Sometimes the line between inspiration and coercion can be very subtle, so it’s important that we remain aware of it.

5) Lean into becoming more

As humans and leaders, we’re often looking for ways to overcome our fears, stretch our limits and take our contribution to a next level. After witnessing firewalking, I can see why people experience it as something that helps them achieve this desire. However, firewalking is by no means the only means to get there.

Our souls (will, thinking and emotions) are an unlimited resource that we can tap into. However, our souls often get trapped in the challenges of daily life, and it struggles to rise above them.

This is where our spirits come into play. Our spirit connects us to a higher reality, and it thinks in terms of life and peace. When our souls get hung up in the distractions of life, our spirits can help us move beyond those trappings.

Witnessing firewalking made me think again about where I go to when I’ve reached the end of myself. It affirmed my conviction that spiritual awareness is the core leadership dimension that we can lean into to do and become more.

As I wrote before:

When we are brave enough to venture into the space of the spirit, the breakthroughs and insights are always tremendous.

The thing about firewalking is that you’ll at most do it a few times in your life. In contrast, growing in spiritual awareness is something you can benefit from every day.

By Dr Rean du Plessis

To book a session with Dr. Rean du Plessis contact us at [email protected] to connect.