The Fire Carrier

Every business is started for a reason, and whilst making a profit is a key factor, it is rarely the causal factor. Most of us who have started businesses have done so as a result of an inspiration, an idea, a cause, or perhaps because we want to make a mark. Whatever the reason, it’s at the heart of the business. It’s the spark.

As the business grows, it changes. We recruit people who weren’t in at the beginning. We adopt processes to make life more efficient, but maybe a little less personal. We end up with important customers, suppliers and investors and shape our business to their needs. The business becomes professionalised.

The spark remains, but the business develops more and more layers that bury it deeper.

Before long, the balance changes. The business becomes distant from the spark that generated it and it becomes an end in itself, rather than means to an end. The business can become the master, rather than the servant.

The spark remains for a while, and can always be brought back to life if attention is paid to it.

Attention is a distictly human attribute – it suggests engagement and curiosity. A sense of being seen and acknowledged. It fans the spark.

The North American Indian Tribes always had a “fire carrier” – a senior member of the tribe whose role was to carry the embers of the campfire to the new campsite when the tribe moved on, in order to start the next fire and keep the original fire alive.

Maybe we can learn from that. Our businesses move on to new areas, but unless somebody is carrying the fire, the spark will go out.

Who’s your fire carrier?

Stranded on the summit.

To make the changes we need to not just survive, but thrive together, we have to go beyond what we know and be guided by what we believe in, our intuition, and our insight.

It’s difficult, because we’re used to proof. A solid business case. Someone to blame if it goes wrong.

We’re used to lionising those who succeed, and castigating those who fail, even when what has been as stake is little more than profitably rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

We’ve entered a period where to progress we need to go into the unknown and be prepared to fail in the pursuit of something worthwhile, whilst we gain the knowledge that will be the platform for the next decades of growth. (hint; people will be more important than systems)

Which brings me to an issue I see. Most of our training around innovation, creativity and leadership is formulaic. Designed for what we have been doing, not what we need to do. It is well delivered, professional, often expensive but has short time horizons. Its’ usefulness also has a short half life in periods of rapid change.

The capabilities we need to develop are significantly different. They address what is emerging but not yet clear, and focus on different values to the financial ones that have brought us to now. They are varied, developmental, often experiential and address more distant time horizons. They are not always expensive, or at this stage profitable for the providers.

This seems to generate a conflict. These two approaches speak different languages. They have different goals. Each can regard the other with disdain, as either too mundane, or too flaky. We need to resolve this conflict.

(Note – there is evidence of this changing. Attendance at Burning Man and some other settings includes senior leaders from a range of organisations – but we’re only making the tiniest of scratches in a very hard surface.)

We need a bridge; a common language. Otherwise, we get people to deep insights whilst exploring the unknown, and leave them stranded without any way to bring it back into the current mainstream. We can do the work, take them to the top of the mountain, but then leave them there.

The key is delivering insight, often to people who will resist it because it requires new thinking, new habits and new measures all of which are unfamiliar.

It places real loads on leaders who will require very different skills from those we teach in the mainstream.

It requires those of us delivering new ways of seeing to generate insight with a real responsibility to be not just guides, but Sherpas. To go along on the journey, share the load and the risk. To know not just the techniques, but the territory.

(and a High Five to David Chabeaux, who gave me the mountain metaphor. I like it a lot.)

Getting to the top of the mountain is dangerous, and the view is wonderful from there, but as any mountaineer will tell you more people die on the way down than on the way up.

What if we’re looking the wrong way?

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”

Marcel Proust.

Or perhaps new lands with old eyes……..

It seems that the more pressure we find ourselves under, the further away we look for answers.

Our capabilities to create new things is unparalleled. Our reasons for creating them less so.

When working with clients I am often amazed that they discount what is behind them, even though in most cases, the power, the joy and the energy for the business they are struggling with lies there.

What did you want to be when you were a five year old? (before you were told that it was not practical)

What did you imagine when you started this business? (or what did your parent imagine)

When it comes to leadership, strategy, philosophy and other “soft” skills (management is a hard skill, and less than a hundred years old) those who went before, from Ancient Philosophers, to Warriors, to Explorers, have much to teach us. they were there before us, wondering largely what we wonder now, but with fewer choices to consider.

It’s not our science, or technology that will determine our future. It’s our imaginations.