Fire Walking, Snake Handling and Kool-Aid Drinking

fire-walkThis news is a few days old by now, but it still screams for comment.  For those who have not heard, nearly two dozen people suffered severe burns at a “firewalking” event held by Tony Robbins, the noted “self-help guru.”  According to a CBS News article, during Robbin’s “Unleash the Power Within” seminar “at least 21 people were treated for burns after attendees of an event for motivational speaker Tony Robbins tried to walk on hot coals, reports CBS Station KCBS.  The San Jose Mercury News reports that at least three people went to a hospital, and most suffered second- or third-degree burns.”

One witness reported hearing “screams of agony” as participant after participant made the decision to walk down a stretch of hot coals during the hour and a half event.  “When it was all said and done, we treated approximately 21 people at the scene for burns and we transported three,” said San Jose Fire Capt. Reggie Williams.  “The burns, from what I understand, were second and third degree burns.”

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Fire walking is nothing new, and there is a good reason why most of those who try it do not get burned.  But it has absolutely nothing to do with some special ability to  “unleash the power within,” and everything to do with the physics of charred wood.  David Willey, a physics instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, and an avid fire walker himself, explains the physics here.

My bigger concern with the story is the cult-like atmosphere, the irresponsible and dangerous behavior of the “leaders” and organizers of the event–including Robbins himself– and the mindset of those who made the decision to continue with their attempt at the fire walk after–after!–witnessing the “screams of agony” of their predecessors.

What prompts someone to continue a course of action after watching a line of people in front of them, one by one, 21 people in all, suffer severe burns from following that course of action?  And why didn’t the leaders of that event immediately shut it down after the very first injury?

The fact that these people were convinced by the “leader” that they could still do this after watching so many people in front of them get hurt by it indicates they proceeded on the basis of a bankrupt belief system rather than physics, which in turn conjures up images of snake-handling and kool-aid drinking.  It tells me that these people were either uninformed or misinformed about the physics of the event.  It tells me that they were led to believe that if something goes awry and doesn’t work for them, it’s because they didn’t “believe hard enough” rather than that there weren’t enough charred coals and ash on the fire to insulate against burn.  If they had been informed of this, they likely would have made the smarter decision not to proceed once they saw what was happening to their seminar mates.

This is far from “great leadership,” and it’s certainly not safety leadership.  Some helpful resources to better understand this phenomenon include:

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