Forest fires, bailouts and rebirth


I saw the most amazing thing in Yellowstone Park last week.  Perhaps you have seen it.  There was a tremendous fire in 1988 and thousands of acres of trees were lost.  Twenty years later you can still see the signs: hacked off, perfectly straight logpole pines dot the landscape; forty feet high with no branches or needles.  But the most amazing sign of the fire is the dense and rich growth of gorgeous pines 10-15 feet high now.  I asked in disbelief:  “None of these were planted by humans?”  “No” came the answer.  “The forest regenerates naturally, as cones in the soil sprout up in the wake of the fires.”  Scientists predicted the remarkable growth we can now witness there.

 The cycle of death-to-life is surely one of the core laws of life – natural, spiritual, economic and social life.  It makes me wonder about leadership in tough times.

 Consider the current, baffling bailout situation.  Should we just let it all burn down?  Some wildly free market folks say “do nothing and watch the market work.”  They remind me some of those who manage the forests who say “let it burn.”  It will take care of itself.  Although there is a parallel, forests and financial markets can also be distinguished in any number of ways.  And increasingly the architects of the bailout are pointing out that the reforms do involve the market.  The government will be buying (not paying for someone else to maintain) assets, and acquiring them at pretty low prices.  We taxpayers will be investors!  Let’s hope they’re right.  Let’s hope with our investments in assets that have burned nearly down to the forest floor of the market, that same “forest” of capital will soon be teeming with activity.

 I wonder though how we turn around a situation in which people increasingly expect their leaders to solve all their problems.  People took crazy loans and are now eager to be bailed out.  People extended crazy loans and now want to be bailed out.  Of course CEOs made equally if not more ridiculous moves – as they supposedly had knowledge of economic history and basic economic laws.   We have an instinct to “blame the leader” and to expect rescue from the leader.  As well as I can understand it, the markets do need to be supported – and gratefully protections are being put in for Main Street.  But WHAT IF some trees needed to die?  Sometimes the kid needs to feel their mistakes and not be rescued at the school office by the parent and the lawyer.  Sometimes the worker who has made a terrible decision has to be let go, if s/he is to learn and become more effective.  Sometimes we need a few more consequences, which may not be fatal for the individual, and which may strengthen the forest, the business, the economy, or the family.

 Sometimes leaders have to find ways to let people experience the “deaths” that will cause their people to be “reborn” with strength.  Sometimes when you’re leading you need to choose not to rescue in order for you and them to 


Lead with your best self,