Norman Maclean wasn’t a business writer. He didn’t consciously write about leadership either. In fact, fewer than should don’t even know who Maclean was—even if they know that a young Brad Pitt starred in a movie based on Maclean’s most popular novella, A River Runs Through It. But that doesn’t mean Maclean doesn’t have something to teach leaders—about leading in any time but especially about how to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. In fact, I’d argue Maclean taught one of the most vital lessons of all: The willingness to drop your tools.
It’s another Maclean masterpiece that’s relevant here, Young Men and Fire. The nonfiction book, part research, part introspection into the human mind when I’s under pressure, is about the devastating Mann Gulch wild fire in Montana in August of 1949. The shock and horror of Mann Gulch wasn’t just the forest fire itself, which consumed large swaths of beautiful terrain. It wasn’t even the fact that it claimed the lives of 12 elite smokejumper firefighters in a matter of minutes. It was the dissonant and disturbing reality check that such skilled professionals could succumb at all.
When the fire instantaneously went from familiar to surprising, the smokejumpers were all on the same hillside. Each individual was well-trained and practiced in their craft. Importantly, they carried with them the tools, physical that is, to respond to extreme fire conditions – shovels, heavy saws, and the like, all there to bolster their ample mental tools. When the wind-driven fire jumped the gulch from the opposite side to theirs in the fire equivalent of a tornado and furiously raced uphill towards them, they even had the added benefit of a crew boss who shouted to them repeatedly, “Drop your tools!” While counterintuitive to those who depend on such instruments, it was a wise command, for the weight of those tools kept those who didn’t drop them from outrunning the flames. In the most extensive research of the incident, it was Maclean who concluded that the difference between the three smokejumpers who survived and the majority who did not, was a willingness to be “in tune with the time,” enough to momentarily let go of their habits of how work gets done, and recall a goal bigger than the work: Surviving to fight another day.
Step out of this story. Think about the last year, and for that matter, the current year still unfolding. It’s an environment of extreme uncertainty, rooted in a global pandemic, but rippling far beyond. Like a wildfire, it has resisted predictability. It has thwarted even the best of plans. It has baffled the best of leaders and their teams. But there’s more. The uncertainty of it all is there regardless. Yet repeated decisions to fight it with old ways and old tools, has frequently succeeded only in stoking the ambiguity and deepening the unknowns. Why? Because like those elite professionals in Mann Gulch, we are reluctant to ‘drop our tools’ long enough to embrace the reality around us for what it is, to improvise if need be, and to ensure we stay in the game long-term.
In a volatile landscape, the fires of the moment can be all-consuming. Often, we have the necessary tools around us to respond—people, capital, customers, and more. But when we are constrained by our mental assets—that is to say, best practices forged in another time and different conditions, or ways of doing built on assumptions that no longer apply—we can quickly render our tools impotent, irrelevant, or insufficient for what we face right now. We see only trees, forgetting the forest changing before us. We think and solve for the moment or worse, a moment past, rather than recalculating the necessary moves in a changed environment. When we do, we risk seeing everything as a nail for the hammers we hold, even when what was a nail has become the fragile yet promising light bulb we need most.
It’s hard to see beyond tactics and tools. Why? Simple. Because tactics and tools matter. They enable us to deliver. Yet the important truth, the one we forget, is that tools support. They do not lead. Tools, tactics, even strategy are contextual. And no matter the context, they are meant to serve a higher purpose—literally the purpose of our work, our organization, our roles, and everything else that enables us to advance, create value, and have lasting impact. When the context changes, so must our ways, and sometimes even our tools.
What lessons can you take away and use? One, be willing to drop your tools—figuratively at least, long enough to take in the environment around you and, as Maclean advised, get in tune with the time. Two, with that added contextual clarity, remind yourself, as Maclean said, “Not all fires need to be fought.” Some simply need to be monitored, contained, or allowed to unfold for a time until the right moves can be made. Three, recognize that knowing the right moves means remembering and staying in touch with what the true goal is—not just in this moment, but over the span of moments yet to come. It also means listening to those around you—call that lesson number four. Uncertainty is rarely a one-person task to tame.
The landscape may be uncertain right now, but it is not insurmountable. To thrive in that landscape, consider that it may take laying aside the answers and ways you hold so dearly, to see the answers and ways you need most.
Written by Larry Robertson. Have you read?
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