It is springtime in Minnesota and one of the things we like to watch for is the day the “ice out” happens on our lakes and rivers.

Ice-out day is the day that the ice is melted enough for boats to cross the lake again. Living in a cold climate means we have a relationship with ice and what it signifies for our changing seasons.

Ice – the icing over bodies of water and the melting of ice – signals the coming winter or coming spring. This process has a lot to teach living organizations about how they shut down or open up to the life in their organization. I live on the Mississippi River above a dam. As fall progresses, the ice slowly takes over the river. It starts as the days get shorter and there is less sunlight to warm the water. It accelerates when the temperatures fall below freezing at night. The freeze completes over time as both days and nights stay at or below freezing.

The process of forming ice doesn’t happen all at once. It starts where water flows more slowly and once the edges freeze, the ice spreads. Over the course of 2-4 weeks, the areas of open water get smaller and smaller. Then one morning, you look out and see the whole river or lake frozen over.

The thawing in the spring also has its own pattern. It usually starts at the eastern edges of the river (or on a lake, the edges of the lake that get the most sunlight). The eastern edge of the Mississippi River gets the most heat from the sun as the earth rotates on its axis and we get longer days. As the melt progresses, the edges reveal the flowing river underneath the ice. These open areas slowly get larger as the heat from the sun builds on the open water to spread across the river or lake.


What Can Organizations Learn from Ice

Living organizations have a lot to learn from nature and the process of how ice freezes and thaws open bodies of water. In living organizations, we see and appreciate the life that exists in the organization and our leadership focus is on creating conditions conducive to life. However, some organizations are focused on controlling people in our organizations. This controlling energy is like ice spreading over a lake. There is life beneath it, but it doesn’t surface. Nor does it work with the life in our organizations.

There are at least three motivations that create conditions for organizational ice. Some managers control people below them because they want to please their boss. The only way to create the conditions to please their boss is to control people who report to them – so you can deliver what the boss wants.

Another motivation that triggers controlling behavior is if the creative chaos of life is a sign of danger to them. They control others to eliminate the dynamic movement of life. The third reason why people control others is that they want to have power over others.

Controlling behavior in an organization acts like ice spreading over a lake or river. It causes life to go underground and what you get are people who are hunkered down and not bringing their talent, creativity, or positive energy to their work.

What Can A Living Organization Do to Melt the Ice?

Like ice melting off the lake in springtime, there are strategies to effect change. First, one can create a pocket of open water by choosing to manage differently. These managers lead team members by unleashing their talent, appreciate each team member for their strengths, and create an intentional equity in the relationships in the team. They also buffer the team from controlling dynamics in the larger organization. In turn, the team learns to interface with the controlling organization while maintaining their pocket of health.

When ice comes off the lake, it starts with open water that is melted by the heat of the sun and the increased movement open water brings to the lake. Having healthy pockets within an “iced over” organization can be an effective strategy to shift an organization’s culture toward the appreciation of life. By maintaining and growing your “open water” it sets up the possibility of spreading healthy pockets to nearby teams and like-minded leaders in the organization. Over time, a critical mass of healthy pockets can shift the larger organization. Critical mass isn’t an enormous number. Some would say it’s about 10% of the total number of employees the organization, sector, or community you seek to influence.


Looking for Life in Your Organization

One thing Minnesota is known for is ice fishing. People who ice fish walk out on the frozen lake and drill a hole in the ice. Some folks who are passionate about ice fishing create small ice houses where they drill their hole and put a small camp stove to create a warm environment while they fish. What ice fishermen know is that below the ice, life is alive and well. You just don’t see it on the surface.

In our living organizations, life is visible. When we appreciate the livingness of our organizations, we get more engaged, positive, and productive employees. When we control people, this life goes below the surface and the organization and its managers can’t access it. What they get is malicious compliance. What they lose is sustainable productivity and active engagement. This is an excessive cost for not working through the managers’ personal needs for control.

Remember, like ice melting, change in organizations and society always starts at the edges and pulls the center towards it.


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: