“Of 40 women who came together at this Women With Big Ideas conference, not one of them could name another person who had her back durring her career. Your job as an innovator is to protect the next generation of innovators that come up and be mentors and supporters to them as they do their work.”

– Dr. Bridget Duffy from RockHealth

I’ve always been bothered by the idea of teamwork (here’s a video that nicely summarizes my feelings on the matter):

I’ve always been a lone wolf. Despite being an exceptionally good team player, I’ve never worked well in teams. It almost never fails that somewhere in the ranks of the people that I work with, I get sidelined by one type of person who has made it their mission in life to light fires. These people are almost always “leaders” and usually hold fancy executive titles that they’ve garnered through the same process used to rejuvenate a phoenix – burn everything to the ground, whatever rises from the ashes, they take credit for.

I call them Business Arsonists – and they’re one of the core reasons why businesses fail to connect with their community, their clients, and their partners. Everybody up and down the line, from your customers to your staff to your business partners, feel the impact of their presence – and it’s not good.

Creativity dies in their presence. The status quo is vigorously defended. And your marketing cowers in their wake as a result.

These are the type of “leaders” who jump on board a new project, obliterate the existing plan, challenge existing deadlines, begin making crazy demands, and in general don’t stop until they get their way.

That sounds like the short definition of almost any “leader” anywhere, right? But there’s one little thing that makes good leaders good and bad “leaders” bad: empathy.

Good leaders have empathy in droves. They work to understand where the project is at, why a particular direction was chosen, and why certain team members are working in certain ways. Once they have enough of the picture to make an informed decision, they motivate in the direction they think is best (even if it’s the opposite direction the team was traveling). They do their best to re-orient their team, re-align them under a new purpose, a new mission. They work tirelessly to get everyone on board with their ideas.

These are Firestarters in the best way – they motivate, encourage, and push people to work their best. I’ve taken extensive training, spent a full quarter of my college education, and practiced every day since then, to become – and continue to be – one of these Firestarters. These are coaches, these are the challenging mentors, these are the good guys who want us to do better because our futures depend on it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Business Arsonists. They want something done their way, on their timeline, with their metrics and measurements met, and so help you God if you don’t hit every last one of ’em. They’re the people who don’t take the time to understand the project, the company, the team. As a result, they make a lot of rookie mistakes in identifying stakeholders, reasonable goals and metrics, and everything else they’re trying to change. If you’re a Trekkie, they’re Edward Jellico – bullish, confusing, and demanding. If you’re a Firefly fan, they’re Jayne when left in charge.

So what do you do when you encounter a Business Arsonist? You have three options:

  1. Run like hell
  2. Stick it out and hope they don’t have more power than you in the long-run
  3. Stand up to them, just like you would any other bully

Because that’s what Business Arsonists are. They’re bullies.

If you’re in charge of a Business Arsonist, fire them immediately. I’m not kidding. I don’t care what kind of results they get, they need to be ousted before they take you down (and they will take you down).

It’s your job to protect the mavericks – have somebody’s back. Don’t let the bullies run your company, don’t let them take down the newbies who need a bit of guidance. You owe yourself, your company, and your customers more than that.

I’ve resigned from partnerships because of ’em. I’ve walked away from lucrative client projects after losing to them. I’ve been forbidden from interacting with entire segments of an organization because of one – they’re literally not allowed to speak to me or share my ideas in that part of the company. The other parts of that same company? They love me and have solid marketing gains as a result of my ideas. The side that can’t speak with me? Not so much.

If you’re sitting there thinking, Geeze Nick, cowboy up will ya? Look: I’ve been there. I stuck it out with a business arsonist so bad, my doctor put me on antidepressants for a year to fix the depression and lethargy that comes from having to deal with a jerk of that magnitude every day.

Toughen up? Bitch, please. I should have been smart enough to walk away a lot sooner than I did – it was my “tough guy” pride that ended up hurting me in the long run. If a client, a partner, or a project drives you to antidepressants, that’s not a matter of “cowboying up” or “cowgirling up” or “being tough”. That’s a whole bunch of bullshit that you need to extricate yourself from as soon as possible.

What kind of work should you be doing? Who should you be partnering with? Lemme tell you one of my new favorite stories: I almost always instruct clients to let me build them a WordPress website because “if I ever get hit by a bus, you’ll have 30 other web developers who are (nearly) as proficient as I am.”

One time I had a client ask, “Why would you want to get hit by a bus?”

“Getting hit by a bus would be about the necessary level of brain damage where another developer could easily replace me,” I said. (I never said lack of ego was a Firestarter trait).

“No, we mean, why would you want to think about getting hit by a bus? Why not ‘hit the lottery’ or ‘fly to Hawaii’ instead?”

And I realized that because I mostly love what I do, I’d still probably have my nose in a computer, even if I hit the lottery or flew to Hawaii. Preferably with my wife, an iPad Mini, and a fruity drink on a beach.

How do you deal with a business arsonist? Let me know if I struck a nerve!

(Header Photo: Fire Starter)