Baptism by Fire: What It Means in Business, With Examples

What Does Baptism by Fire Mean?

"Baptism by fire" is a phrase commonly used to describe a person or employee who is learning something the hard way through a challenge or difficulty.

In many cases, someone who starts a new job must undergo a baptism by fire, meaning they must immediately deal with one or more difficult situations. No one is immune to a baptism of fire, which means new and old employees, members of a company's management team, and others can experience one. The phrase, which has its roots in the Bible, originated in Europe.

Key Takeaways

  • Baptism by fire commonly describes a person or employee who is learning something the hard way through a challenge or difficulty.
  • Rooted in the Bible, the phrase was originated in Europe.
  • New employees are often trained through baptisms by fire because they have to deal with complicated, real-life situations sooner rather than later.

Understanding Baptism by Fire

As mentioned above, the phrase baptism by fire is rooted in the Bible's Matthew 3:11. The following passage is from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

The phrase was originally synonymous with a personal ordeal that someone went through. In Biblical and Christian references, a baptism by fire is also used to describe the martyrdom of an individual. As time progressed, the phrase was used to describe a soldier's first time at war, with the battle representing the soldier's baptism. In most cases, baptism by fire is still used as a wartime reference.

Baptism by fire has also been adopted by the modern work world—primarily in Europe. A baptism by fire may refer to an employee's strength, wit, and quick thinking to come out on top of a situation—whether it's deliberate or by chance. It is sometimes considered a good way to quickly train a new employee. The rationale being that they will have to deal with complicated, real-life situations sooner rather than later.

For instance, those in uniform—police officers, firefighters, and military personnel—may be thrown into the fire to quickly acclimate to the tough demands of their jobs. Once this baptism or test is complete, these workers should be able to perform their duties effectively because they've already demonstrated their mental, physical, and emotional strength to survive the initial challenge.

If an employee passes their baptism by fire, they should be able to handle any other situation that arises on the job.

Examples of Baptism by Fire

The phrase baptism by fire can be used to describe any number of situations. For instance, a new trader may find the market is moving violently and often against them. They survive their baptism by fire if they can successfully execute their trades with minimal or no losses regardless of which way the market moves.

Similarly, the chief executive officer (CEO) of a big company may suddenly face their own baptism by fire when a public relations (PR) crisis hits. This may be because the company physically abused a customer on video or because of a problem with the company's product line.

For example, in 2009, Michael McCain, CEO of Canadian meat company Maple Leaf Foods, faced a series of issues after the company's cold cuts were linked to a national listeriosis outbreak that caused 22 deaths. McCain issued an apology and an expanded product recall.

Here are a few other situations in which someone may have to undergo a baptism by fire:

  • A new hospital intern is scheduled to work a 48-hour shift in the emergency room
  • A writer reassigned to the Washington D.C. desk is asked to cover a breaking White House scandal and deliver the story to the managing editor by 5 a.m. the next day
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  1. Stevenson Whelton Barristers. "Maple Leaf Case Study: An Example of Crisis Management." Accessed May 18, 2021.

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