By Thomas H. Coble     (Fall 1992)

Originally written in Alaska, where Tom Coble used to spend the month of July as a wilderness river guide.

It is supper time; everyone is hungry after a long day on the river. The food sizzles atop the Colman stove. Everyone eagerly awaits the call, “Come and get it while it’s hot!” I look toward the river and see a 600-pound Alaskan brown bear coming toward our camp. 100 feet away from our supper and us!

Bear in camp … it makes for interesting entertainment, though completely disruptive. What do we do? What will the bear do? What does all this have to do with organizations and leadership?

These big furry creatures are very similar to characters seen in organizations. By nature, they are often:

  • Concerned with what they want without much regard for others
  • Curious
  • Obvious enough that they cannot be ignored
  • Often not listening, despite good hearing
  • Powerful
  • Disruptive
  • Potentially dangerous if not attended to
  • Playful
  • Entertaining
  • A bad example for everyone around

There are some basic rules for dealing with these characters – in the wilderness and in organizations.

RULE 1: Accurately assess the situation without emotion.

RULE 2: Get a clear objective or realistic solution.

RULE 3: Deal directly with the bears. They cannot be ignored.

One of the truths about dealing with these creatures is that they do not go away if ignored. They usually only cause more trouble.

This is not an advocacy that all problem employees should be run out of the workplace. It is an advocacy that they should be dealt with directly. This will reduce the disruption for you and the rest of the people in the organization.

Now back to our furry bear, the one in camp. He came closer. We yelled, whistled, and waved our arms in an attempt to establish our territory. He came closer, trying to see what was going on. With our gun at the ready, we ran at him. He stopped and backed slowly away! The rules were now established. He circled around camp and continued on his journey.

After our hearts slowed to a regular beat, we laughed and talked about the encounter as we ate our supper. All part of a day on the river. When he got the scent of our camp, he circled around us, avoiding another encounter. If we had not established our territory with the bear, it would have been a problem all over again and he would have continued playing by his rules.

As a leader, how are you dealing with your “bears in camp?” they will not go away on their own.