The beating heart of Denali National Park and Preserve

So who’s the boss? And why was I thinking about the added value delivered by a business owner in the snows of Alaska, of all places?

As I wrote in my post in early September, my trip to Alaska inspired me to resume my blog. This time, I’m writing about the insight that evolved among the mountains, icebergs, bears and wild berries.

Alaska is a region that was not meant for man. Nature is vast and overwhelmingly powerful. The climate does not permit normal living for eight months of the year. In addition, about three-quarters of its tremendous space is a wilderness, defined a national park, and is mostly uninhabited. The few people who live in Alaska year-round spend four months living intensely, followed by eight months of sheer survival (or, as they put it, “not doing too much”). But in the summer months, the Alaskan population is tripled as tourists flock in droves from all over world, guests in a land that does not belong to man.

We visited Alaska in one of those short months in which the state comes to life. Tens of thousands of young people are employed in a variety of summer jobs – as tourist guides, in restaurants, hotels, as sports instructors, etc. Then there are the business owners, their establishments open for business from early May until mid-September, who spend the rest of the year in more felicitous locations in the USA. The Alaska we encountered was bustling, and in some places, the atmosphere was almost like summer camp – you come, have fun, work hard, meet young people, the living conditions are commensurate, and then back home you go.

I observed this well-oiled system, set in motion anew each year – hiring workers, training them, catering to hundreds of thousands of tourists, and then disappearing – with admiration. Clearly, the operation is flawless, but who’s the boss? Who is in charge in the long term? Who breathes life and soul into this huge machine, defines its rules and maintains its continuity? Who is the steward of this vast location?

These questions mainly preoccupied me during our visit to Denali National Park and Preserve, which covers six million hectares, the skyline dominated by Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America at over six thousand meters. The park is just three hundred kilometers from the North Pole and the terrain is nature untamed, primeval and unfriendly. The tourist village on the outskirts of the park is truly buzzing in summer and resembles, as I mentioned, one big summer camp.

So who has undertaken the role of proprietor, I asked myself?

The answer to the question became clear on the following day: the National Park Service Rangers, the people charged with protecting and preserving the National Park System. They aren’t many in number, but their presence is important and well felt, and everyone mentions them. Spending a few hours with these people makes it abundantly clear that they are imbued with a sense of mission. They position themselves as the ambassadors of silent nature and wildlife. They are unpatronizing, and rather express an attitude of providing loyal service and maximum responsibility – civil servants in every sense of the word.

The Rangers protect nature from visitors, and visitors from nature. They recognize their role as protecting and preserving this vast space for future generations, permitting tourists a controlled, limited glimpse so as not to disturb the “permanent residents”. They undertake the role of proprietor:

These are the National Park Service Rangers, working in faraway Alaska. And what about you, the owners, the older generation; do you remember to address these points? Do you impart your important values? Perform your role as stewards? Address the tough decisions regarding continuity? Do you consider all of the above your primary duty?

Always bear in mind that production, sales, accounting and even future product development can be well run by hiring external, non-family managers, who come and go. This is uncontested. But you, the owners, are those who give the company its soul: its uniqueness, its atmosphere, renewal and continuity. Its legacy, if you will.

I know well how natural and easy it is to fill your time and thoughts with the urgent problems of production, sales and financials. And it is precisely for this reason that I was happy and grateful for the opportunity to observe a system that works and to remind myself how important it is to give time and thought to the “soul of the business”.

Looking at the wilderness of Denali National Park and Preserve, the message to you, the owners, is clear: you are the stewards, the torchbearers, those who are responsible for the legacy and continuity. You are the soul and the beating heart.

I know that some of you fill the role of owner without assuming accountability as to the nature of your function, and without giving thought to what truly is the main difference between you and the outside managers you hire, talented as they may be. To you, I would like to say that the added value of these “hidden” roles is immense. Do not forget them, and do not make light of them. With all due respect for the pressing routine affairs, however important, your beating heart is the beating heart of your business, and it is what makes all the difference.