Over the past decade, I have worked with organizations in various countries that had a wide range of social/organizational cultures. What was a raging success in one place would have been a debilitating nightmare in another. In Brazil, something as simple as taking a 2 hour lunch and tacking that hour on at the end of the day was more about the climate than purposeful culture, but it did contribute to the expectations within the culture. In Australia, working on a normally scheduled day off accrued a “day in lieu” in which your scheduled day off could be taken at another time. Neither one of these things are extremely common, or popular, in American organizations.

With all the differences, there are some similarities that transcend cultural and geographical boundaries. It is in our nature as humans to gravitate toward things of which we are passionate. We may be the one leading the charge or we could be moved to support someone else who is already a few paces ahead of us in a specific area. It is this “fire in the belly” that moves us to do great things.

So what do you do when someone on your team begins to smolder and a fire is birthed inside them?

  1. Be a wet blanket – Some organizations have put some processes and management styles in place so that there is no chance for a spark in anyone. It is most likely a “command-and-control” leadership style that prevents a fire from ever starting. While it may be an effective way to make sure things are done “your way”, it limits your organization to your weaknesses and short-sighted approach to things.
  2. Blow it out – Often times a flame is allowed to begin for the sake of appearing to be open to new ideas. Once it doesn’t “fit”, it is summarily extinguished as quickly as it was born. This is a very common way to ensure “people like me” become the status quo. Like the be a wet blanket approach, you end up creating clones which are also copies of your mistakes and short-comings.
  3. Stoke the flame – On the rare occasion, there is a leader who sees the value in having fire as part of the equation and they stoke the flame to grow into something great. Granted unchecked fire is destructive, however when gently directed and nurtured it can be a powerful force to change the landscape. Smoldering embers are minimally effective and roaring wildfires are overkill. A good leader understands the appropriate sized flame to make the most difference.
Not every flame is the best one for the circumstances. The heat needed to temper steel is too hot to effectively form glass. As with most things, understanding the need and striking the appropriate balance is an integral part of leadership. Are you stoking the flames in your organization?
  • Deborah Costello

    This is a well-drafted metaphor that I see in education. I think it is the “Blow it out” model that I see most often, a commitment to new ideas until they get hard to implement or create disruption. There is no doubt the allowing a new idea to appear before blowing it out can be an excellent PR and HR move, but it does little to improve any measure of success in an organization. Innovation can be very challenging, but without it we are lost. Thanks for this excellent description.

  • I have a number of friends who are in education and your assessment seems to be in line with what I hear from them as well. If there is a place where we need innovation…it`s in a place where our kids are most impressionable. Thanks for your contribution Deborah!

  • Valerie Iravani

    Hello William, This topic is far more important than most executives are committed to believing. As our Gen Y employees grow into the strongest part of their careers, you can bet there will be even more energy and idea creating around most work enviornments.

    If all of that “fire in the belly” or passion is not heard, validating, focused and used, turnover in most organizations will increase significantly, and core knowledge begin to erode as Boomers retire, and Gen X employees jump ship for greener pastures.

    What we need to develop within organizations are more open enviornments where information and resource sharing between departments becomes more common. This actually facilitates idea generation, increases innovation in processes, products & services, and increases employee engagement and loyalty.

    This is fairly common knowledge throughout business research and in all manner of publications – trade magazines, books, classes, and evey case studies with some very famous businesses. My questions as a mid-level managers and employee are:

    1) What will it take for senior executives in medium and large business throughout the western world to be convinced that action on this issues needs to occur now?
    2) What will it take before some one in the executive team takes responsibility for taking the necessary steps to shift the corporate culture and systems toward this paradigm?
    3) This is already happening to some degree at the ‘grass-root’ employee level – they are making it known through their actions what they would like to do – what will it take to get front-line and mid-level managers the authority they need to spend the time and effort in their daily job functions to create and/or help facilitate these changes?

    Gee, can you tell I feel strongly about this issue?!

  • Thanks for your passionate comment, Valerie. I believe this is an engagement issue and tying executive remuneration to things such as performance, turnover AND engagement would be a great start to giving this issue more traction. I appreciate you’re detailed and impassioned contribution!

  • The issues is critically important. The amount of energy, optimism and motivation that is lost through not allowing employees to put their ideas forward is immense. It is like owning a huge innovation laboratory and not using it. Last week we published an interesting article that is tangential to this – the importance of fair process and engaging employees. If you would like to read it, it can be found at: , http://wp.me/p1E6Vm-fk

  • I couldn’t agree with you more, Simon. Thanks for your contribution and link to a nice post!