The First One Through the Underbrush

Recently I was walking my dog at a nature preserve.  The path we were on was newly paved—it hadn’t been a few years ago when we had last walked here.  Much of the river bottom land on either side of the path was well on its way along the road to the recovery that was advertised on the signs on the fences on either side of the path encouraging us to “stay on the path.”

I found myself reflecting again, as we walked along and I gazed into the dense underbrush, what it must have been like for newly arrived farmers to have been faced with this kind of land clearing effort at the end of an arduous journey.  I imagined a man telling his wife and children that they had “arrived” only for the family to wonder what they had arrived at.  The number of bruises and abrasions, not to mention what probably appeared to be endless work just to get to the next beginning, must have been completely disheartening for many.  But the fact that many persevered is proven by the fertile farms that fill this valley along the US west coast now.

Leaders in organizations at all levels are faced with a similar situation today.  There is plenty of underbrush and in many cases the underbrush obscures the claim that there is fertile soil underneath perfectly capable of growing that which will turn the economy around and restore a measure of prosperity to those who have lost it or feel they now have a tenuous grip.

When in the past I have been asked to lead projects that have no current prospect or plan for success, projects where conflict and covert organizational and interpersonal processes abound, the first thing to do has always been walking around and getting everyone’s perspective on the problems at hand.  The second thing to do has been to set boundaries of ethical and effective conduct and start sorting the problems and their contributors based on those boundaries while increasing transparency as rapidly as possible.  Yes, this is a high stakes game; bruises and abrasions come with the territory.  A good immune system—organizational and personal—is a priceless tool in this process.

Many leaders today aspire to change that will truly leave the individuals in the organizations better off as people just as it leaves the organization better off financially.  The two are connected if you believe that money is a representation of life energy, which might be why so many of us are eager to get as much as we can.  Leaders with this aspiration may be faced with more challenges than most, which is why a great sense of mission is usually evident when you talk with someone on this path.

My experience has taught me that walking this path is worth it.  And, I’ve had my share of wakefulness and rapid rise of blood pressure right along with the successes.  I have been most deeply gratified to return to a scene where I have staked out the territory of making both the human environment and the organization a better place and found that the improvement stuck—even though it means others have taken up the task of plowing the fields, cultivating the crops, and benefiting from the greater harvest.

Some time ago, I sat across a conference table from a client I have come to know and respect, and we talked about these challenges and personal risks from his perspective.  We talked about courage, and we acknowledged the risks.  We didn’t talk about where courage comes from or how to deal with it when you try to cut down a big obstruction to progress and it falls on you—as will inevitably happen sometimes.  He is doing well as he tries to lead the organization he works with to greater vibrancy—both human and financial.  I’m sure he has his share of wakefulness, as well, but his commitment is undaunted, and for this I admire him.  He is making steady measurable progress along, not only the right path, but the path he desires to follow because the destination is a productive organization of strong individuals each contributing his best to the benefit of the whole and themselves.

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