Human Resources Lessons from the Campfire

Hugh MacDonald

While we’re here in the office, thousands of young people are having the time of their lives enjoying themselves at campgrounds across the country.

I suspect that your memories of youth, like mine, include not just the joy of long, lazy days with friends in and around the water, but also stories and songs around the campfire. It was during the cool of the evening, as summer was nearing its end, that I learned many early lessons about working together in groups.

My interest in human resources, for example, began with my experience in scouting. My scoutmaster’s definition of leadership stayed with me over the years. He said, "Leadership is getting others to do what you want them to do because they want to do it." I later learned that he probably heard this from General, later President, Eisenhower. But, whatever the source, it sounded great—the challenge was how to actually do this. How do you get people to do something because "they" want to do it? Is there a "secret"?

I’ve learned from experience and observation that it’s not a matter of motivating someone to take action. This just doesn’t work. Motivation comes from within. Social psychologists and adult educators know this as does anyone who has ever supervised people. Knowing this, allows us to understand the difference between management and leadership. Management is about planning, organizing and controlling people to get something done, which, with most knowledge workers, is like asking a border collie to herd a bunch of cats. There is a lot running around and barking, but the only reason the cats end up in the barn is because that’s where the food is. Leadership, on the other hand, is evidenced when people do what needs to be done on their own because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

This isn’t a matter of providing people with more information. Sometimes we think, "If they only knew what we know they’d act differently." Regretfully, that doesn’t work. Information on its own is suspect—especially if it challenges the information people already have. People don’t want more facts—they want a story. If we can present new information in the form of a compelling story, if we can frame it in new and compelling ways, we can appeal to the imagination and change what people believe.

By inspiring people to believe in a goal, presented in the form of a story, we allow them to motivate themselves to high achievement or to take action. If there is a secret to leadership, to getting others to do something because they want to do it, it is this—the development and mastery of our ability to influence others through their imagination.

Being able and remembering to present information in the form of a compelling narrative is one of an human resources professionals’ most important tools.

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