Tending the Fires of 21st Century Organizations
[Photo Courtesy of G. Michael Smith: “First Encounter with Fire”]
I have a confession to make. I seem to be obsessed with fire. I love sitting in front of a fire in my living room. It has always been a requirement over many years that a home I purchase will have a living room fireplace. I have even built fireplaces in a dining room and bedroom that I have owned. I have also been fascinated with fire as a dynamic, physical phenomenon. This all came to a head when I read Ilya Prigogine’s account of fire—when compared to the pendulum (Prigogine, 1984). This Nobel-prize winning physicist noted that much of traditional science has focused on phenomena and physical objects that are predictable and orderly—such as the pendulum with its to-and-fro movement. As one of the founders of Chaos and Complexity Theory–an area of science that is particularly problematic, Prigogine has encouraged his fellow scientists to focus on processes and physical entities, such as fire, that are much more elusive. He notes that fire has often been used to elicit a process or transform an object—but has rarely been studied itself.
With my colleague, Agnes Mura, I drew an analogy between the study of fire (as opposed to the study of a pendulum) and the study of an equally as elusive phenomenon: the contemporary organization (Bergquist and Mura, 2012). In our essay entitled “To Flicker or Swing: The Fire and Pendulum of Leadership”, Agnes and I wrote about the ways in which complex and often chaotic organizations operate. I want to move further in this analogical analysis by drawing a comparison between the fire that I tend in my living room hearth and the “tending” that is done by those leading 21st Century organizations. If nothing else, this essay has provided me with a wonderful excuse for spending some time sitting in front of my fireplace on a cold, wintery Maine afternoon or evening. It is now Spring and time to prepare my reflections on fire and leadership.
What is Tending?
I begin my journey into the nature of fire and organizational tending by going to the Internet for a clear definition of the word “tending” – and it’s root word: “tend.” As in the case of the flames flickering in my fireplace, the words “tending” and “tend” are themselves a bit elusive. Multiple meanings can be assigned to the word “tend”. On the one hand, it can be used to describe a regularly or frequently occurring behavior (“she tends to . . . ‘”) On the other hand, “tend” refers to a caring act and to a specific kind of behavior: attention to the welfare of another person (“ I am attending to her health . . . “). Along with many other meanings – including the “tending of a fire”—these two seem to capture the essence of the Tending process.