"Don't Play With Matches" and Other Dangers of Negative Campaigns


By Susan Ford Collins

Appealing to the anger and upset of a nation has been a tried-and-true political strategy to earn votes and win elections. But sadly, knowing what we don’t want does not lead us to what we do want… unless we take a vital extra step.

Years ago I was a consultant to a government organization that was charged with creating a now-familiar sign. They were considering two choices: In case of fire, do not use the elevator, leaving frightened people confused, upset and undirected. Or going further, In case of fire, use the stairs plus providing maps to nearby stairwells. After several tests, it was clear which choice worked better to quickly lead people to certainty and safety.

Words are “sensory packages” we learn to recognize and use as children. Fire = red, hot, danger. Elevator = a large box that moves up and down a building. Simple. Direct. We see, hear, feel, taste and smell words and take action.

The word not is different. Unlike fire and elevator, not is a marker that adrenalizes us to make a new choice: If not this, then what?

As soon as not is added to an instruction, two steps become necessary in order to take appropriate action: Step One- Our brain senses fire and elevator and… revved up, heart pounding… we prepare to climb inside and ride down to safety. Until Step Two- we remember there was a “not” in that instruction… an X through it so to speak… so we must quickly formulate a new plan. Unfortunately, when we are afraid or upset, we frequently get caught up in our upset and fail to take that vital second step before speaking. Here is a story that tragically reinforces this danger, especially with kids.

Don’t play with matches while we're gone

Kevin and his wife were leaving their son with a sitter for the evening. As they pulled on their coats, she said emphatically, “Bobby, don’t play with matches while we’re gone. Promise me you won't.” Kevin thought this was unusual because Bobby was afraid of lighting matches, but they were late so he let it go. When they drove away, she told him she watched a TV show that afternoon about children who set fires while they were with sitters. Those scenes of badly-burned kids and flashing emergency lights kept playing over and over in her head so she felt she had to say something to keep their son safe. They enjoyed dinner and headed home. When they turned onto their street, they saw fire trucks on their lawn. Bobby had followed her “don’t play with matches” instruction and set fire to the drapes. Their sitter called 911 and they rushed Bobby to the hospital where he was being treated for severe burns.

Sadly, don’t play becomes do play… until we create and communicate another way. What could that frightened mom have said and done to keep their son safe? She could have created an action plan, specifying videos, games, or puzzles to play, and talked that plan through with her son and sitter before leaving home. And put all the matches out of reach, of course. As leaders, we cannot count on children or upset people to take that second step themselves.

Unfortunately knowing what we don’t want is where many of us have stopped. Like that mom, we have seen scary scenes on TV, been adrenalized by movies or speeches. But until now, many of us have failed to recognize a life-changing/life-saving truth… we must each take the all-important Second Leadership Step… imagining and communicating, in detail, what we do want instead, for ourselves and others.

Clinton or Trump… at this point in the presidential election cycle, instead of focusing on what we don’t want and screaming even louder, we each need to stop and ask ourselves: What do I want for my community, nation and world? Who do I sense is most able to develop and execute a plan to safely and effectively get us there? Then we need to begin pressing her or him to share the details of that plan so we can ask even more questions, knowing that the more detailed a plan is, the more power it has. And the more people who align on these details, the greater the power and impact the plan will have.

Susan Ford Collins…“America’s Premier Success and Leadership Coach”-CNN… is the creator of THE TECHNOLOGY of SUCCESS, the powerful leadership system used in more than 3,000 training programs in major corporations, startups and turnarounds. Audiences begged Susan to write about the 10 Success Skills so, after shadowing Highly Successful People (HSPs) for 20 years and coaching them for 20 more, she wrote The Joy of Success (#1 Best Seller Amazon Kindle ), Success Has Gears, and Our Children Are Watching. www.susanfordcollins.com or www.technologyofsuccess.com