The phrase “baptism by fire” originates from the Bible in Matthew 3:11. In Christianity, the phrase was associated with personal trials and tribulations and was also used to describe the martyrdom of an individual. Many years later, it was associated with a soldier going to war for the first time. Here, the baptism was the battle itself. “Baptism by fire” is a phrase used to describe the process of an employee learning something the hard way with great difficulty.
Understanding baptism by fire
In business, baptism by fire refers to an employee being thrown into a difficult situation with little to no preparation. To emerge from the other side victorious, the employee must rely on sheer determination alone. Starting a new job is the most obvious example, with the individual required to learn multiple new skills or deal with several challenging situations.
Many organizations favor this approach because it is a useful way to train a new employee quickly. They also believe there is no time like the present to prepare the individual for complicated future situations which are inevitable.
Examples of baptism by fire in organizations
It is important to note that baptism by fire can impact seasoned executives as well as new employees. In fact, those with rank or seniority are often thrown into extremely difficult situations with little to no preparation.
Consider the example of Michael McCain, President and CEO of Canadian meat company Maple Leaf Foods. In 2009, McCain suddenly had to deal with the company’s cured meat products causing a listeria outbreak that resulted in 22 deaths. In a video apology message, McCain noted that the outbreak was “the toughest situation we’ve faced in 100 years as a company. We know this has shaken your confidence in us. I commit to you that our actions are guided by putting your interest first.”
McCain is still CEO of the company to this day and, while emotionally impacted by the deaths, emerged from the crisis a stronger leader. McCain’s transparent and ethical response to the outbreak was met with praise, with the media suggesting he was a beacon for crisis management.
Baptism by fire is also commonplace in most emergency first response organizations. Police officers and firefighters must learn on the job, which necessarily exposes them to high-stress situations where time is of the essence.
Incoming governments and political leaders are often forced to deal with challenging circumstances immediately after taking office or being appointed.
During May 2015 in Alberta, Canada, incoming Premier Rachel Notley had to manage the most severe natural disaster in the province for years. Over 70 wildfires burned across Alberta, with thousands of residents forced to flee their homes.
Many U.S. Presidents have also inherited crises after assuming office. Abraham Lincoln inherited a divided nation on the brink of war, while Thomas Jefferson had to deal with a nation bitterly divided by a two-party schism.
- “Baptism by fire” is a phrase used to describe the process of an employee learning something the hard way with great difficulty. The origins of the phrase come from Christianity where it was associated with personal ordeals.
- Baptism by fire is favored by many organizations because it allows the employee to learn quickly. The sooner they develop the skills necessary to face challenging stations, the better they will be prepared.
- Baptism by fire situations can affect any individual – regardless of rank or superiority level. Company CEOs are often faced with leading their organizations through difficult situations. The same can also be said for governmental leaders and emergency first responders.
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