May 8 – The spark of leadership

“The work of the individual still remains the spark that moves mankind forward.” (Igor Sikorsky)

Every mighty, raging, all-consuming inferno begins from a single spark. The other elements, like fuel and oxygen have to be present, and the conditions have to be right for it to grow and spread, but the catalyst that gets the fire going is that single spark. And so it is with every important accomplishment of human, both good and bad.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, technological advances were on the rise in the field of rocketry. Experiments were being conducted shooting things farther and farther into the sky, with increasing accuracy. President Kennedy fanned the flames of progress with his rousing speech, but it was the work of individuals like Goddard and von Braun that had sparked the progress.

As far back as the 1890s, people were tinkering with horseless carriages. Some had even manufactured commercially available products. In the first half of the 20th century, the automobile business transformed the economies of countries throughout the world, and soon thousands of people from engineers to assemblers were hard at work. But, it was the spark provided by the work of men like Daimler and Ford that got the fire going.

There are countless other examples. In sports, where teamwork is paramount, it is always an individual that gets the team going. Sometimes they are even referred to as the “spark plug” of the team.

I know that when I work together with other, like-minded people more can be done than when I work alone. But, I also know that it takes the spark, and the vision of an individual to initiate the team and to get the ball rolling. This is what makes leaders of people. Providing that spark, the catalyst and then gently fanning the flame, is the key.

About 10 years ago I was at a Boy Scout camp in North Carolina. While there I attended a mini-training session on how to start a fire using flint and steel. I had done this as a young scout many years before, but I wanted to have a refresher. We were taught to put together a small “nest” of very combustible materials, and then to insert a small piece of char cloth into the center. We carefully made sure the nest was dry, and then we positioned ourselves to shield it from the breeze. When all was ready, we used the flint and steel to generate a small spark. That spark landed on the edge of the char cloth and caused it to glow. We then carefully blew onto the ember, gently fanning it until that tiny spark grew and ignited the nest. Soon we had a roaring fire.

In that session we learned that we had to assemble the right materials, and to make sure the conditions were right. We then practiced generating that spark, and gently tending the flame until it grew. Had we not been careful about our location for the training, we could have set in motion a fire that would have burned out of control and consumed acres of woodlands. All of this from a single, almost imperceptible spark.

When it comes to moving people forward, the process is the same. As leaders we assemble the team, provide them with the tools for the job, and make sure that conditions are right for success. Then we spark the team and gently fan their creative flames until the project takes on a life of its own. When I am able to do this, I am being an effective leader.

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