Starting a Leadership Fire

It occurred to me recently as I was working with a client that developing your people is a lot like starting a fire. There’s an art in starting a fire. You have to know something about the materials that you’re working with. And often, a fire starts small.

When fire first starts, it’s often very tentative. It’s easily blown out or squashed. In the early stages, you cannot put a big log on top of a small fire, or you’ll just smother it. So instead, you have to carefully decide how much more wood the fire can tolerate, which piece of wood is the next one to add to the growing flame. Sometimes you have to  let the fire catch up with the wood that is already there, and other times it helps to blow on the fire, to provide more oxygen.  (The word “inspire” literally means “to breath into”).

As a fire grows, it becomes more and more important to add larger pieces of wood—if you just keep adding small pieces, the fire won’t last.

This is a good metaphor for developing the people you lead. You have to know the materials that you’re starting with–the strengths and capabilities of the person that you’re leading. You have to know their passions, their interests, their development areas, and the areas in which they’re already competent.

As you work with them, there are different sorts of “wood” you might add to the fire of their leadership.  What is the next kind of leadership role or task that they’re ready for? You don’t want to choose something that’s too large, because it can overwhelm their growing leadership fire. At the same time, you don’t want to keep providing them things that are too small for too long because they may lose interest.

It’s important to breathe inspiration into your leaders and to provide them with encouragement and positive reinforcement for the successes that they have achieved so far. Those serve as oxygen for a growing leader, because people thrive on positive feedback and on being seen for their successes.  Feedback that is more focused on what they can do better is also vital “air” for a growing leader.  People need a clear roadmap for how they can succeed.  Formal training and development opportunities, like participating in a leadership development program or coaching, are also inspiring for most leaders and help them continually grow.