A Healthy Burn

For a healthy forest to remain healthy – for it to survive – it has to burn.

That’s not conjecture, it’s science.

A forest has to burn frequently enough to clear out the understory – the pine needles, dry grasses, and smaller trees – that when left unmanaged can turn a necessary cycle of periodic fire into an inferno from which few forests can ever fully recover.

Too much fuel equals massive devastation. When that fuel is reduced the mature trees – the ones we think of as “forest” – remain unharmed and even strengthen their resistance to fire.

Since people don’t care much for fire, these “healthy burns” rarely get a chance to run their natural course. We stamp them out as quickly as possible and unwittingly create conditions for much worse outcomes down the line.

The natural world, in its taciturn way, is always teaching us how to work with change in our own lives and in our organizations, too.

Sometimes the understory has to burn – old hurts let go of, good people moving on, dated practices falling away – so that we have the space, once again, to imagine just how high we would like to grow.


How to Change an Organization

In The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King the character Pippin, who is one of a ‘band of brothers’ on a quest to save Middle Earth, lights a beacon (a large and strategically placed bonfire) that begins a ripple effect of many more such lightings. From mountain peak to mountain peak, the fires are lit, passing along an urgent call to action. It is the Middle Earth version of S.O.S. and 911.

The lighting of the beacons is my favorite scene in the trilogy of films, both because it is beautifully constructed and filmed and because of the message it gives us about how we might begin our own efforts at organizational change.

None of us is preparing for a war that will determine the outcome of Middle Earth, though on some days it feels just that way. What we are hoping for, and struggling to enact, is change that allows us to operate more effectively in the every day. We want our best efforts to equate to beneficial outcomes alongside people we care about. That does not happen by accident. It happens when we commit ourselves to the necessities of adaptation.

The lighting of the beacons is not the story of a single fire but of the manner in which the lighting of one fire begets the lighting of the next. Most organizational change efforts are single fire, top-down affairs that rarely translate into new practices and better outcomes. Instead, they fizzle out, leaving cynicism and frustration smoldering in the ash heap.

What gets missed is that real change only happens at the level of the individual fire, with each group designing its own plans for change in the larger context of the system of which it is a part. This is messy and disjointed at first but allows the personalization of change – involvement and ownership at the ground floor – that is directly connected to the whole. When each group’s beacon is lit, it sends a declaration that serves to inspire other’s to light their own.

This shared responsibility for owning a link in the chain of change connects people in ways that top-down commands simply cannot do. The leader’s job is to answer where we are going and why.  The team’s job is to provide the how. Let them start the fire of change and they will strive to keep it burning for as long as they are entrusted to do so.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

It’s Still Burning (until it’s not)

I share my home with a few very capable Girl Scouts. One thing they know, that seems so easy to forget, is that a fire is still a fire until it is completely out.

I think it’s the human condition to “put the fire out” quickly using immediate but insufficient measures. We pour some water on it, kick some sand over it, cover it up somehow and assume that being doused or starved of oxygen the fire no longer has a life. But we know that even if only one ember remains there is still a chance that in the right conditions it will come back to life. If we have convinced ourselves otherwise, that resurgence is a most unwelcome, often very dangerous surprise.

I see this play out where I spend most of my time, in organizational life in interactions with leaders and teams.

The quick fix of a shift in responsibilities, a new assignment, or a new reporting line is often the equivalent of that quickly tossed bucket of water. It seems like real change, but the burning underneath is still very real, undaunted by the cosmetic overhaul. When we fail to address the true source of the heat, we fail to address the true nature of what’s occurring.

So often those surface level changes are made from a place of good intent, a belief that in new circumstances old behaviors will diminish or even disappear. Sometimes they do, but most often it’s a temporary shift that satisfies us in the short-term, only to disappoint us further down the line.

That last burning ember doesn’t give up easily. It’s still burning even when it looks like it’s not. Our job, the leader’s job, is to make absolutely sure.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

The Gathering Darkness


When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.’

– Paul Hawken

The gathering darkness is real.

And you are a point of light.

Choose to shine or choose not to shine. You decide.

If you choose to shine you will only get brighter as the darkness deepens. And if others also choose to shine the points of light will connect and overwhelm the darkness.

Don’t concern yourself with the darkness far from here. There’s enough nearby to contend with. Concern yourself with that person who has not yet decided to shine and see if you can help them start their own, small fire.

One at a time.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.


The Fire That Saves

CA Dead Trees

Patches of dead and dying trees near Cressman, Calif., in 2016. CreditScott Smith/Associated Press

“100 Million Dead Trees Prompt Fears of Giant Wildfires” is the headline of an article in today’s New York Times that examines how interrupting the forest’s natural state – its inherent ability to “use” fire to its advantage – has created the potential for unsurpassed devastation:

Mark A. Finney, an expert in fire behavior for the U.S. Forest Service and an author of the study, says California forests are much more vulnerable now because, paradoxically, they have been better protected. In their natural state, forests were regularly thinned by fire but the billions of dollars that the state spends aggressively fighting wildfires and restrictions on logging have allowed forests to accumulate an overload of vegetation.

“We had forests that were very resilient to weather variations and insect disturbances in the past — maintained by frequent fire on the order of every year, or every few years at the most,” Mr. Finney said. By putting out fires, “we’ve changed completely the fire component of these ecosystems,” he said.

The same is true for many people. Instead of allowing for and learning from change we protect against it in all its forms. When we open ourselves up to what is shifting in our lives – and the shift is always going on – we build a resilience that serves us well when the inevitable big changes come. The alternative is to suffer a drought of adaptability and to eventually be fully consumed by something we could have learned to contend with.

Are you over-protecting and making yourself vulnerable to a devastating fire? Or are you learning – one small burn at a time – to thin out the undergrowth of your personal ecosystem by learning to notice, accept and learn from the truth of continuous change in your life?

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.