Facilitative Leadership and Fueling the Fire of Change

June 4, 2015 7 Comments

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

Viktor Frankl


Photo by Soreen D

I sometimes use the metaphor of “fire tending” when talking about Facilitative Leadership, the approach to leadership and social change we here at IISC practice, model and teach. Facilitative Leadership is grounded in the ethic of “creating and inspiring conditions for self-empowerment so that people can work together on a common goal.” It is a form of leadership, rooted in a series of connected and reinforcing practices, that increasing numbers of people, organizations and networks seem to be drawn to in this ever more complex, uncertain and dynamically interconnected world.

Thanks in part to the following inspiration from poet and professor Judy Sorum Brown, I invoke “playing with fire” as a way to think about ways of creating optimal conditions for collaborative change.


What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.

So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

I love this imagery, and the invitation to mastery around not simply “piling on the logs,” but intentionally creating or leaving space (what we as facilitators and trainers often call strategic use of “form and void”) for individual and collective emergence. There is also an invitation here to not be afraid of fire, but to embrace it as a powerful force. Of course, fire can be damaging and destructive, and it can also be used to warm, to heal, to inspire.

Cool fires” can also be used to help build resilience and regenerativity into living systems, feeding and encouraging new growth and diversity. I want to pick up on this theme in a subsequent post about regenerative networks. And curious to hear how you are strategically playing with fire. 

“By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs – now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life … “

– John Muir



  • Anna Sims Bartel says:

    Thanks, Curtis! This is lovely. I, too, find fire a useful metaphor for processes of change and growth (I created a seminar years ago called “Passion and Sustenance: On Crafting a Life” that played intentionally with these questions, including questions of how to bank the coals to avoid burn-out). For me, the interest comes primarily from my time as a wilderness educator — we teach the “fire triangle” as a means of thinking intentionally about the desires of fire: not just fuel, as you note, and life-giving air, but also heat. For me, that’s the least obvious and most valuable part for our systems work: without a spark of heat, all the fuel and air in the world won’t catch. And on cold days, in cold climates, we need a lot more heat to help things light and burn. For me, this speaks to the value of community, of commonality, of passion both internal and shared..that heat is what enables the smart structures we design to really work. Thanks for prompting this today!
    All best,

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Beautiful, Anna. Thank you. I appreciate your introduction of “the fire triangle.” Alienation from the power and regenerative nature of fire speaks to me of the deeper trend of disconnection that we are aiming to help bridge.



  • Thank you very much for sharing this. I’ve also written about fire as a powerful metaphor of transformation, but I hadn’t focused on the importance of the space between the logs. Nice!

    Here is one post about how leaders are keepers of the fire of transformation:

    And here’s another about the paradox inherent in that – of loving what is even as we support its transformation:

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, Michelle, for your response and for sharing your posts. I really like the paradox you point out of loving in the midst of change. I look forward to focusing more on what you’ve shared.



  • Thanks Curtis, for this poem. I have also used the “building a fire” metaphor as a means for nascent grassroots organizations to assess their organizational capacity. http://www.how-matters.org/2014/04/27/building-a-fire-organizational-capacity-assessment/

  • Nice article , Thanks for sharing

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