The Wisdom of Birds: Leadership When the House Is on Fire


Leaders who sit in a flaming building but who refuse to see the fire are in dangerous denial. Great leaders refuse to fool themselves and boldly face facts with their teams.

From inside a house already in flames, the firefighters heard cries of "Fire!" and "Help!"

Obviously there were desperate people trapped inside. The brave firefighters fought their way through only to discover not humans but two parrots. There were no people in the house. KBOI TV in Boise reports that the two birds were rescued in time, given oxygen by the firefighters and are doing well.

I have so many questions! One is right there. How did they get the oxygen masks on the birds? I'd like to see that.

The report does not include any background information on who taught the birds to cry, “Fire!” and, “Help!”

A second question, please. Were the birds owners prescient? Did they have some premonition about a fire in their future or were they preparing the birds just in case?

"You never know. Someday there just might be a fire while we are out of the house and the birds will be ready."

Another provocative option is that the birds were not taught to scream for help. Did they just know what to say? That's a stretch.  But then this entire story is a bit of a stretch.

I know what you're thinking. The Leader's Notebook cannot possibly make any reasonable application out of this bizarre story...

Actually, a very serious thought came to me the moment I read about these lucky parrots: Even birds know when the house is on fire. The more I teach at the National Institute of Christian Leadership, the more I travel and speak at venues of every size and shape, and especially the more consultation I do, I grow more and more astonished at leaders who wait far too long to scream "Fire!"

They wait and watch declining statistics, sometimes for years, ignoring trends that are obvious to even the most cursory examiner. I have had the unhappy job of telling some of them, "Look, this is burning down."

The really awful moment is when I see shocked disbelief spread across their faces and I realize they are in such denial that they cannot hear me. Leaders who sit in a flaming building and refuse to see the fire are in dangerous denial. Great leaders pay attention to the numbers. They refuse to fool themselves and they boldly face facts with their team. This not an incitement to panic. Nor is it a call to quit too soon. It is to say two things.

  1. When negative trends over time are clearly indicated, great leaders act early on. They do not allow those trends to accelerate downward until the house is engulfed in flames and it's too late. They gather the right people around them. They seek wise counsel. They make and follow through on well-designed plans to arrest and reverse downward trends.
  2. Great leaders get help. These two bright parrots knew they could not put out the fire. They needed firefighters for that. They called them in and let them do their jobs. Our carefully constructed mechanisms of self-defense are but the frank admission of our insecurities. Great leaders do not go into their armadillo imitation, curled up in self-protective anger, refusing to get help.

There is a moment to say calmly, "I can do this. I know how to handle this."

There also comes a moment when outside professional help is needed. The wise little parrots didn’t lock the doors and send the firefighters away; they let them in and rejoiced in the rescue. Sometimes the victory is just living over it and starting over.

Finally, KBOI's report on the unlikely parrot story ends with this cryptic line. "The cause of the fire is under investigation." They do not say if the parrots are under suspicion.

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