Uniformity, creativity and the employee handbook

A Lesson from George Hartzog

George HartzogLately I’ve been reading the autobiography of George Hartzog (Battling for the National Parks, 1988), perhaps the greatest leader of the National Park Service ever (director, 1963–1972). That’s the judgement of Park Service historian Robert Utley (in New York Times), though some might pick founding director Stephen Mather. P.J. Ryan took it a step further and said (quoted in Hartzog, p. 156) that Hartzog “was perhaps the most formidable agency chief since John Wesley Powell” not to mention him being “the cigar industry’s answer to aerobics.”

Hartzog was a man of tremendous vision who oversaw the largest expansion of the park system in history and completely revamped the way our parks are run. He did so with courage and strategy. He cut through bureaucracy and wrote his own rules, sometimes paying the price, sometimes bringing home big wins for the National Parks.

When hippies rioted in Yosemite and the Park Service was looking for ways to keep them out of the parks, Hartzog went to investigate the situation. Arriving in the park, he put on old clothes and went out to the hippy campsite and just sat around the fire for several hours listening. He held an all-Valley meeting the next day and invited all questions.

He then completely revamped how the parks were run, splitting the rangers into law enforcement and interpreters (who interpret nature and history, not languages), hiring new interpreters and tasking them with creating programs for young people.

Hartzog had the vision to realize that a strategy that hinged on excluding young people would end in the utter destruction of the parks over time. So rather than focusing on keeping hippies out of the park, he focused on getting them in. In doing so, one might say he literally saved the parks.

I’ve always loved the riot story, but I found one I might like even more in his autobiography and illustrates his free-wheeling leadership.

The National Park Service had the most educated, talented, innovative cadre of people I have ever known — in or out of government…. I wanted to turn them loose. I told the regional director that I thought the handbooks which, for the most part, told you how to do your job were stifling our field people. They disagreed; so I appointed a committee of them to look at the situation and make recommendations. Soon, the committee reported the handbooks were needed to insure uniformity. That did it!

My objective was not uniformity, but creativity and productivity. I abolished fifty-six volumes of handbooks, including the three I had written, and substituted instead objectives, goals, program and personal performance standards. Man-o-life did I catch hell, one would have though I had repudiated the King James version of the Holy Scriptures!
——Hartzog, p. 152—53.

It’s yet another example of how he didn’t enter the debate, he didn’t even reframe the debate. He threw the debate out, opened things up to personal initiative, unleashed that talent. Hartzog himself, before becoming director of the Park Service, passed the bar and became a lawyer despite never attending college let alone law school. And then went on to be accepted to the bar of the Supreme Court. It’s no surprise that he was willing to ride a bit free and wild and was willing to encourage those in his agency to do the same.

I certainly don’t see anyone like that in Park Service, probably not in all of government, today. I wonder though how Hartzog would be taking on the challenges of today.

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