Drop yesterday’s tools to overcome today’s adversity

Great leaders and teams are able to overcome adversity by recognizing when to let go of tools and methods that may be weighing them down.

There is a story about two wildfires that captures this concept very well. It goes something like this:

There was a wildfire in Montana in 1949, and another in Colorado in 1994. Firefighters responded to each, as the fires posed great threat to life and property. Both fires jumped the fire breaks that had been constructed. Because of the speed at which the fires spread, and the unexpected jump over the fire breaks, the firefighters found themselves with the flames at their heels. Both groups of firefighters had to turn and run in order to have any chance of survival. Unfortunately, between the two events, 27 brave souls perished.

Why did they die?

The 27 firefighters died because they could not run quickly enough to outpace the fire. They could not run quickly enough because they continued to carry all of their firefighting equipment as they fled. All of their protective clothing, their helmets, their pickaxes, their flashlights, their boots, their radios, their shovels…they carried everything in their flight to survive.

After a dramatic change in their reality, they continued to hold onto things that had served them well in the past but were then threatening their survival.

They died because they did not have the clarity of vision to let go of obsolete tools and methods and embrace those necessitated by a new reality.

I can relate. I have been surrounded and pursued by the flames of obsolescence. I have held my ground in the face of the winds of change. I have watched others around me either perish because they could not let go of the past, or survive by seeing the need to act differently and making the necessary change.

What tools was I carrying?

In 2005, I entered the U.S. Naval Academy; an experience I saw as a developmental program to propel me from one level of management to a higher level. As 2005 turned into 2006, I became more at odds with the institutional and instructional methodologies employed. More than that, I was at odds with the other students ahead of me.

You see, many of the upperclassmen ahead of me had entered the Naval Academy directly, with no previous military experience. But I had extensive experience. I had come up the ranks (I was a Sergeant of Marines, after all), and knew a thing or two about military organization and leadership. I told myself that these younger people (the upperclassmen) only knew what they were taught in a classroom, with no real-world understanding about how to lead outside of the environment created within the Academy's walls.

I already had my tools.

I bucked the system every chance I could. “What do these kids know about anything? I’ve been out there, I know how to lead. I’ve done it already. These kids are just playing leader.”

My tools began to feel heavier.

As time progressed, my relationships with the upperclassmen and with my own classmates became strained. Instead of being perceived as a seasoned expert, as one who could coach others to further refine their skills, I was seen as a grump. I was the perpetually unhappy, dissatisfied curmudgeon who would not hesitate to tell people how little they knew about management…about leadership.

All the good I had done as a leader in the past was simply that...in the past. The missions accomplished, the heart-to-hearts with difficult subordinates, the change management and behavioral adjustment I was able to effect…it was all just memory. My methods worked before, but something was not working then. I had the leadership experience, but I was not being a leader.

All of the firebreaks I built were about to be jumped.

Towards the end of my sophomore ('youngster') year, after sabotaging too many potentially beneficial relationships by being proud and recalcitrant, I reached a low point. I had already bumped heads with senior folks because of my outspoken nature. Then I took it too far. Because I did not agree with the particular requirements of a certain course, I just didn’t show up one day. At that point, after ruining relationships, offending others, and being a general moron (all the while telling everyone how much leadership experience I had), I was placed in a probationary status. My progression through the Academy's curriculum was in serious jeopardy.

The flames were at my heels.

That was a wake-up call for me. Being so close to losing my spot at the Academy, and to losing the opportunities that would follow, sobered me. Thankfully, with some expert guidance from my mentors…true leaders, the lot of them…I was able to refocus my vision. Over the second half of the program I began to see that while my methods and my style had worked in the past, they were not working anymore. I had been holding on to heavy tools when I needed to be agile enough to sprint, and to enable others to sprint with me. I began to reflect more on what leadership tools had worked in the past, how I could adjust or reshape those tools to fit my current conditions, and what new skills to adopt to be a more adaptive, forward thinker. I had outrun the blaze...barely.

Consider your tool kit.

You have many experiences; many successes; many competencies. But where is your vision focused? Are you scrambling to keep hold of the tools that served you well yesterday? Are you allowing what worked in the past to weigh you down today? Or are you taking in the conditions around you and seeing that change may be vital to your survival?

If you feel a little overwhelmed by such questions or by the prospect of having to figure any of this out on your own, consider that you don't need to go it alone. Your own maturity as a leader or member of a team will increase as you build partnerships with others.

Can you outrun the fire