Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Respect the Thorn

“Leaders create teams that engage in healthy conflict: enabling a dynamic exchange of ideas, the voicing of diverse viewpoints, and, ultimately, innovative solutions. “ (Leading in the Wildland Fire Service)

(Photo credit: AFH Comics)
If you are like me, nurturing the perfect rose is quite a feat. A month or so ago, I noticed that my rose bush was about to bloom. Upon close inspection, however, I found the bush was heavily infected with aphids. I grabbed my personal protective equipment (gloves and sunglasses) and my favorite clippers and went to task. In order to help the plant, I needed to remove unnecessary branches and sickened buds and apply an aphid treatment. As I grabbed my first stem, I realized knew I had to respect the thorns (technically, they are rose prickles). The bush's natural defense mechanism influenced my ability to act and eliminate the aphids.

Do the Thorns Help or Hinder Your Team?

The thorn plays a mixed role in the survival and overall health of the rose bush. On one hand, thorns provide vital protection; on the other hand, they present a barrier to outside help and influence. Similarly, fire leaders and followers act as “organizational thorns” within the leadership environment. Organizational thorns have the ability to positively or negatively influence situations and bring about consequences that affect the organization.

You’ve undoubtedly witnessed a few organizational thorns in action. They are the ones who openly defend—verbally or through silent opposition—their position. They often stand in the way of consensus and are referred to as “thorns in the side.” Granted, there are team members who may wish to sabotage the mission, but some organizational thorns have information the team needs to hear.

Margaret Heffernan shares her thoughts on the importance of “thinking partners who aren’t in echo chambers” in her YouTube talk "Dare to Disagree.” According to Heffernan, successful organizations should view conflict as a way of thinking. Members of thinking organizations must:
  • Find people who are very different from our selves.
  • Resist the neurobiological drive of choosing those mostly like ourselves.
  • Seek out those with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking, and different experiences and find ways to engage them.
  • Really care because engaging healthy conflict takes a lot of time and energy.
  • Be prepared to change our minds.


Back to the Rose Bush

Looking back at my rose bush analogy, I conclude:

  • Healthy organizations produce healthy leaders.
  • Unhealthy organizations need to remove the unnecessary and sickened elements.
  • Early recognition of a serious problem can save the organization from potential ruin.
  • Respect the organizational thorns that defend and protect; remove the ones that hinder growth and survival.

A Look at "Leading in the Wildland Fire Service"

Leadership Environment

Leadership is defined as the act of influencing people in order to achieve a result. The leadership environment is made up of those critical elements that a successful leader considers in planning for effective action.

The first element is you, the leader, who is ultimately responsible for all action and results.

The second element is your people, those that you are responsible for.

The third element, the situation, is comprised of the many unique variables that influence a leader’s decisions such as objectives, conditions, resources available, organizational influences, and others affected by the action.

The last element is the consequences—the short- and long-term effects of your actions.

The one predictable factor of the leadership environment is that any or all of the elements will change. A leader’s sphere of influence varies with any situation. Each person on every team is unique in behavior and personality; their motivations differ and change over time. The situation, be it the weather or the political context, changes. Missions always have different levels of risk.

Leaders constantly assess the elements of the leadership environment and adapt accordingly.

Successful leaders understand the interplay of these variables and demonstrate flexibility in selecting appropriate leadership tools and techniques as a situation changes.

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