9:00 a.m. – March 25, 2005
I am sitting in my office, doing my work, and my cell phone rings. When I answer, a woman claiming to be Velma, the gate guard for my new community, is on the other end of the line. She says, “We have been trying to reach you, your house has burned down.”
Bad joke! I moved in my house three months prior and friends were playing jokes on me pretending to be the water company or the bank, so I assumed it was another prank. But then I thought, how would they know her name? Maybe this is real?
I tentatively said, “Excuse me, what did you say?” She responded, “One of your neighbors saw smoke coming from your house early this morning and we called the fire department. Your house has burned down, come home immediately!” I hung up. My mind went blank and I was numb. Surely this cannot be true.
I called my best friends to tell them the news and they said they were on their way. I grabbed my things and ran through the office yelling, “My house has burned down, I have to leave”. I do not recall any faces or reactions, it was a blur.
I ran to my car and knew that I had to focus to get home safely. I kept looking up to the sky, believing I would see puffs of smoke to guide me home, but I did not see anything. My phone rang, I answered, and a man claiming to be the fire chief asked me where I was? I told him the name of the street I was driving on. He then asked, “What do you see in front of you? Where are you now? What color is the sky?” I responded and with each question I inched one step closer to my home. When I turned in to my community, people were lining the sidewalk, the gates were open, and everyone was pointing at me. I could see their mouths moving and saying, “she is the one!” I saw four large fire trucks and an ambulance. I wondered, “what are they doing here?” Oh, they are here for me.
I parked my car and my friends came up to hug me. They said, “you can look at the house, and then you have to talk to the fire department.” They took me by the hand and walked me to the front of my house. I peeked through the windows and saw a shell of a building. Everything inside appeared to be in shambles and ruined. I felt weak in the knees and could hardly catch my breath. My response must have been very common as the fireman came over to hold onto me.
They sat me on the stoop in front of my home and said, “I have to talk to you and ask some questions.” The fireman told me the fire had started in the downstairs bathroom. She asked, “When was the last time you used it?” I answered, “This morning.” She said, “What were you doing in there?” I paused and answered, “Number 1”. She tried not to smile, but it peaked through. She then asked if I used a curling iron. I looked at her quizzically and said, “Look at me! I have short hair how would I use a curling iron?” She started to laugh and said, “OK, no more questions. We have to ask these to ensure it was not arson. Take care of yourself and take one step at a time. That is how you get through this.”
I did not know what she meant, but that phrase would become my mantra over the next days and months. My next step was to breathe to get through this moment.
The insurance agent came up to tell me he was sorry, and asked where I would be living so he could contact me. I told him, “I don’t know.” My friend said, “She will be living with us, of course!” I had a place to live, one step at a time.
After hours of questions and discussion, I was free to go. I drove to my new home. I packed light, all I owned were the clothes in the gym bag in the trunk of my car. I went upstairs to my new room complete with a flowered bedspread and baby dolls.
That night my friend and I went to a store to buy some clothes. We agreed we would go in separate directions and buy anything in my size. On Your Mark Get Set…Go! My friend took off, stopped 15 steps away, and turned to find me immobilized and crying. She came back to me and asked what happened? I answered, “I don’t what to do? Should I start from the top and work down…from sunglasses to shoes. Or should I start from the inside and work out…from underwear to jeans. I don’t have anything!” She said, “Let’s start with what you need tonight and buy pajamas. We can tackle the rest tomorrow.” One step at a time.
The next day, I returned to my house to walk through with the insurance adjuster. We assessed the damage and It was extensive, it was exhausting, and it was sad and depressing. I walked out of the house and the front step was covered with gift boxes filled with towels, socks, underwear, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and gift cards. The basics, one step at a time.
Over the next nine months, I rebuilt a house and a life! Every step reflected new experiences, compassion from others, and miraculous moments. One step at a time.
On Christmas Day 2005, I was given the keys to my new, empty home. I walked in, sat on the floor inside my doorway, and wept in gratitude for good friends, good health, and good fortune. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, one step at a time led me home.
The 15-year anniversary of the fire was March 2020, the start of the quarantine. When I read the updates, I realized there are similarities between the pandemic and my experience with the fire.
• People are emotional, erratic, and are on a rollercoaster. They may be happy, sad, quiet, or angry…all in one day or hour.
• People are getting back to basics, staying close to home, and cloistering with family.
• People are learning new things. We are being forced into new pathways; home schooling, work from home, technology, and figuring out how to put the pieces together.
• People state they are getting “fuzzy” with the overwhelming amount of information and data flying at them at warp speed.
• People are fearful. We crave the past, but it no longer exists.
HOWEVER, there is one BIG difference! I was the only person who experienced the fire. I did not know how to relate the situation or explain my feelings to others. In this current time, we are in this together. We are all going through the same experience. We can lean on each other for support. We do not know what is next.
You may be asking, what does this story have to do with you and your team?
When the future is unknown, the leader must LEAD. Even when the leader experiences uncertainty, they must step up. Other people are depending on them. Is it difficult? It can be, but that is the commitment that a leader makes when they take on that role.
Leaders must clearly outline the goals and expected results. They must prioritize and provide the next step with credibility and patience. The leader must also know when to stop giving step-by-step instruction and empower their team.
There is a distinction between clarity and micromanagement.
According to Wiktionary, clarity is the state or measure of being clear, either in appearance, thought or style. Lack of clarity will cause confusion.
According to the Merriam – Webster Dictionary, micromanagement is controlling every part, however small, of an enterprise or activity. It may produce results in the short-term, but it hurts employee and company morale over time.
If the leader is clear, authentic, and vulnerable in their communication the team will trust, and micromanagement is not necessary. How does the leader know the communication is received and understood? Tune in to the next blog on this topic.
Right now, we may feel that our normal way of life has gone up in flames. Years from now, we will look at this time to remember it brought new experiences, compassion from others, and miraculous moments, one step at a time.
You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
Martin Luther King, Jr.