Monday, January 31, 2011

"Leading in the VUCA Environment"

I know many of you in the wildland fire service cringe when we benchmark the military, but there are great lessons to be learned from organizations and institutions that parallel our own. Therefore, this entry focuses on a four-part series that I have been following on the Harvard Business Review blog since November 2010. Col. Eric G. Kail, commissioned artillery officer in the U.S. Army and current course director for military leadership at West Point, shares leadership lessons from the military in a piece he titles “Leading in a VUCA Environment. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

I highly suggest that wildland fire leaders read his short posts as well as Karl Weick's article Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster. Here are a few highlights from Col. Kail's posts and his tips for leading more effectively.

Every wildland fire leader faces “a state of dynamic instability brought about by drastic, violent, and rapid shifts.” These events that develop in and around the fire ground, require our immediate attention and can “leave us feeling overwhelmed, alone, and utterly unprepared to lead effectively.”

Col. Kail’s words of wisdom:
  • Ask your team to translate data into information.
  • Communicate clearly.
  • Ensure your intent is understood.
Uncertainty occurs when “a lack of clarity hinders our ability to conceptualize the threats and challenges facing the organizations we lead.” Very similar to ambiguity, but Col. Kail looks at uncertainty from an understanding that “You simply have to be here and see it to understand what’s going on right now.” He warns of “an over-reliance on what we’ve witnessed before” when addressing an existing situation.

When assisting in the development of the 2003 Annual Fireline Safety Refresher product, I was introduced to the concept of vu jade which is “the strange feeling that an experience has never happened before.”* If you participate in our Professional Reading Program, you recall this concept as presented by Dr. Karl Weick in "Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster."
Col. Kail’s words of wisdom:
  • Get a fresh perspective.
  • Be flexible.
  • Glance back, look ahead.
Wildland fire leaders should become adept at creating interactive teams that come together to address the entire fire picture and not just that within their limited span of control. Understanding how action affects another is critical, especially as the complexity of the fire increases.

Col. Kail’s words of wisdom:
  • Develop collaborative leaders.
  • Stop seeking permanent solutions.
  • Train tomorrow’s heroes now.
Col. Kail distinguishes ambiguity from uncertainty by saying that “ambiguity leads primarily to inefficiency and missed opportunities.” Symptoms of ambiguity include:
  • The inability to accurately conceptualize threats and opportunities before they become lethal.
  • Increasing frustration that compartmentalized accomplishments don’t add up to comprehensive or enduring success.
Col. Kail’s words of wisdom:
  • Listen well.
  • Think divergently.
  • Set up incremental dividends.

A Call to Innovate

Manager: “She wants to attend another leadership course? Isn’t she ‘done’ yet?”

This scenario may be all too common to some of you. If your supervisor hasn’t said it to you, maybe you have said it to yourself.

Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, in their Harvard Business Review blog “Are You the Boss You Need to Be?” refer to a state of “Plateau of Good Enough” where “managers grow and develop to a certain point, and then they stop” or they “mistake comfort for real competence.” What type of leader are you? Are you competent? Have you learned all there is to know about leadership?

The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program supports the contention that leaders are lifelong students of fire—that we are never “done.” I believe that leaders can be made and that leadership development is ultimately a personal endeavor. Many of us are limited to the extent we attend formalized leadership training which is often viewed as expensive and seen by many managers as an ineffective use or waste of funds. Training our leaders may be expensive, but putting a price tag on not training is an insurmountable task.

In my January 24, 2011, blog entry titled “The Essence of Leadership” Doug Downs commented about “how tight budgets often mean restricted training or leadership development.” He believes this will require each of us to “find new and innovative ways to further develop our leadership qualities as well as those we lead, especially those we lead.”

Innovation was also a key topic in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech. He challenged us to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Fire leaders have a duty to develop their subordinates for the future. What can we do as the wildland fire service to innovate to become more efficient and effective? Share your ideas here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness was defined by Ralph Jean-Paul as “Having a physiological edge that enables you to be consistent, confident, focused and determined during high pressure situations in order to perform at maximum potential.”

Mental toughness is referred a great deal to athletes. This entry shows how this psychological preparedness can be applied to all of our lives. We all encounter difficult situations in our jobs and personal lives that require more than knowledge, skills, abilities and past successes. It helps to draw on an attitude, a toughness that allows us to push through hard situations and face hurdles with confidence.

Leaders who understand and are able to apply mental toughness will find more success. Instead of doing what comes natural, these ‘tough’ leaders will do what is needed. They will take the risk of doing something new that is required of the situation. They will also look for new facts and insights which challenge the accepted view, rather than avoid or ignore the differing opinions. Mental toughness focuses on the individual leader, self confidence and self discipline.

Read Ralph Jean-Paul's article and you decide. Where’s your mental toughness?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sun Tzu on Leadership

As I migrate the information contained in the About Leadership tool of the Leadership Toolbox, I am amazed at how much information I have neglected on the WFLDP site. "What it Takes to be a Leader" on the Sonshi website was only one of many leadership nuggets on the site. Sonshi was founded in 1999 by Thomas Huynh as a "network of professionals from various disciplines joing together by a common interest: Sun Tzu's Art of War."

If you are a student of fire and leadership, you are acquainted with Sun Tzu's Art of War and his philosophys that were written over 2,000 years ago. The WFLDP through the Professional Reading Program encourages readers to peruse Gerald Michaelson's modern adapation titled Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers (50 Strategic Rules).

The Sonshi site has articles written by and interviews conducted with individuals from various walks of life. Leadership experts around the world come together at this site to discuss this leadership staple. If this isn't enough, a translated version of Sun Tzu The Art of War is available on the site.

Monday, January 24, 2011

"The Essence of Leadership"

In 2004, Pete Smith, then President & CEO of the Private Sector Council, gave a speech titled "The Essence of Leadership" at the Medina Lecture for the National Capital Area Chapter. We showcase his speech here as we transition information from the About Leadership tool in the Leadership Toolbox.

Smith's Leadership Biases
  • Leaders exist at all levels.
  • Leadership is a personal thing.
  • Leadership will fail unless it's built on strong and genuine values.
  • With one notable exception--the military--the public sector needs to do a much better job of developing leaders.
Smith's Common Characteristics of Great Leaders
  • They have integrity of mission.
  • The mission is more important than the leader.
  • They have a genuine interest in the views of others.
  • They are adept at understanding people's individual skills and deploying them in the right places.
Smith provides insight into leadership development in the public sector. This is a great read for wildland fire leaders.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"Managers vs. Leaders"

Today I bring to you another transition from the About Leadership tool in the Leadership Toolbox.

In Managers vs. Leaders, James Colvard (2003) talks about the key differences between the two positions. His main premise is that "Managers provide leadership, and leaders perform management functions. But managers don't perform the unique functions of leaders."

Within the article he presents the stages of development that managers and leaders got through--"not perscriptively, but conceptually"--and gives leaders insight into building on strengths.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sense of Urgency and Complacency Meet

by Mike DeGrosky
CEO of Guidance Group, Inc.

Over time, I have accepted what I consider an immutable fact; that leadership is all about change. The big brains in the field widely accept that the purpose of leadership is change seeking, change making, and that leaders provide the driving force behind necessary change. In the operating environment of wildland firefighters, we can apply that thinking in (at least) two ways.

First, engaging any fire (regardless of objective) is an attempt to bring about change – unsuppressed fire suppressed, missing ecological force, unprotected property protected, unbroken fuels converted to fireline….you get the idea. Fireline leaders bring about these changes by establishing and communicating clear direction, aligning the efforts of people with that direction, and motivating people to get work done while overcoming obstacles along the way. Another perspective on change in the operating environment of wildland firefighters is that new policy and an evolving operating environment demand that wildland fire agencies ask their people to change their individual roles and responsibilities, some dramatically.

Leadership and organizational change expert John Kotter describes eight errors organizations make that contribute to the failure of their change efforts. At the top of his list, Kotter includes failing to establish a great enough sense of urgency. In fact, Kotter titled a recent book on organizational change A Sense of Urgency. Kotter makes clear that, above all else, the ability to create a sufficient air of shared urgency lies at the heart of successful change efforts. In this way, successful organizational change requires combating complacency.

That second change scenario is on my mind today. New policies and an evolving operating environment are causing changes to the individual roles and responsibilities of firefighters. Some of those changes are drastic, and we are trying to reorient a wildland fire service with a long history of essentially fighting all fire. That is a big change and it worries people.

Firefighters are adapted to clear-cut responsibilities (fly, drive, walk or parachute to the fire and put it out). Now they find themselves working fires, or even parts of fires, managed (in non-emergency fashion) for resource benefit, cost containment, risk management, or some other objective requiring a less aggressive stance on their part. They may not even personally agree with the objective or the policy responsible for it.

Asking aggressive specialists to slow down and do less can present a leadership challenge, particularly if they are not on board with the change to begin with. The problem is that, even in occupations more mundane than firefighting, if people lose their sense of urgency, complacency is sure to follow. Unfortunately, complacency is the enemy of both change and of firefighter safety. In my world, the enemy of change and firefighter safety is the enemy of effective fireline leadership.

Anyone who has been around awhile knows that some firefighters fail to see themselves in harm’s way when they are not either engaged in active suppression or employing traditional tactics. To be sure, strategic management response may add to the challenge. However, this is not a new problem that just came along with strategic management response. Firefighters also fall into the complacency trap on prescribed fires, small fires, oddball divisions on big fires, and in mop-up. I cannot say why, but some firefighters treat anything requiring less than their full fire suppressing effort as a different kind of event, requiring less urgency, and less vigilance. Complacency sets in.

However, snags fall on managed fires and we have entrapped unassigned firefighters walking in to their camp. Besides, isn’t someone expecting results, even if the desired result is not completed fireline? My point is that the risks and responsibilities inherent to wildland fire remain, regardless of policy or management objective. Regardless of objective, a fire assignment is a fire assignment; with all the associated risks and responsibilities.

I think about an opportunity I had to be on the line with an NPS fire use module a few years back. I flew into their remote assignment as a surprise. Their helispot and spike camp was squared away; all members of the module were on the line and obviously had been for hours. As I walked the line I found everyone fully engaged in meaningful work, recording data and locating contingency line. Though fire behavior was minimal, everyone was wearing their PPE, and there was no sense that people were unconcerned about safety. After all, they were working a remote assignment a long way from anywhere, on steep and rocky terrain. There was no indication that people found their work unimportant, with chatter on the radio, and all module members focused on the data that the fire use management team expected from them. I got the impression of a disciplined unit and that the module leader expected results, even though they likely would not throw a shovelful of dirt that day. If anything, the module leader seemed a little intense.

At the heart of successful leadership lies the ability to create a sufficient air of shared urgency and the capacity to combat complacency. People who share a sense of urgency remain alert and responsive, act on the need for change, and focus their time and priorities on the tasks required by the change. To combat complacency and establish a sense of urgency requires leaders to act boldly and decisively, resolving to move the organization in some direction without hesitation.

Mike DeGrosksy is a regular contributor to the WFLDP blog. "The Guidance Group specializes in human factors and organizational assistance to fire service organizations. We provide our client organizations with a unique blend of real world fire management experience and skills that may not be available within the client organization."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

North Zone Fire Completes "Band of Brothers" Series

A few months back, Randy Skelton, Division Chief - North Zone Fire Management, Black Hills National Forest, blogged about his crew's contributions to the Leadership in Cinema program. True to their word, the crew completed lesson plans for all 10 episodes of the HBO movie series "Band of Brothers.

Kudos, North Zone Fire, for leading by example. Your dedication to the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program is truly appreciated.

As always, members of the wildland fire service are encouraged to submit their ideas to the Leadership in Cinema program. We are always looking at ways to expand the program. If you have developed a different way of instituting the program at the local level, we'd love to hear about it. Contact Pam McDonald at
This blog entry is in honor of Richard "Dick" Winters, famed leader in "Band of Brothers," who died a couple weeks ago at the age of 92. His legacy and lessons learned will live on through the Leadership in Cinema program.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

1910 Idaho Fires Staff Ride

On behalf of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee, I would like to commend the 1910 Fires Staff Ride project team on their new addition to the Staff Ride Library. Members of the project team included:
  • Adam Ackerman, U.S. Forest Service - Colville NF
  • Scott Ebel, National Park Service - North Cascades
  • Doug Frederick, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Pacific Region
  • Ken Meinhart, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Pacific Region
  • Jason Riggins, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Pacific Region
Special thanks to the following individuals for their valuable support and help with finalization of the staff ride:
  • Julian Affuso, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Southwest Region
  • Gail Aschenbrenner-West, U.S. Forest Service - Idaho Panhandle NF
  • Jim Cook, U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Ken Frederick, Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Steve Matz, U.S. Forest Service - Idaho Panhandle NF
  • Nina Walker, Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Leadership When Events Don't Play by the Rules"

Our condolences go out to the victims of the recent shooting rampage in Tucson, AZ. This event has many struggling to make sense of the inexplicable.

In "Leadership When Events Don't Play by the Rules," Karl E. Weick, co-author of Managing the Unexpected in the Professional Reading Program and Sensemaking in Organizations, offers advice to leaders who find themselves facing such defining moments. Many say this event will be one of Barrack Obama's defining moments as President.

Weick uses the acronym, SIR COPE, as a resource for sensemaking is such situations:
  • Social: "Encourage conversations, don't treat them as malingering."
  • Identity: "Help people solidify other identities such as sounding board, witness, source of resilience, information hub, story-teller, companion, care-giver and historian, all of which are roles that help people build a context that aids explanation"
  • Retrospect: "Make it possible for people to talk their way from the superficial, through the complex, on to the profound. Listen to the words people are saying, help them find other words that connect with human strengths rather than with darkness and evil. Help them talk their way into resilience."
  • Cues: "Help people expand the range and variety of cues they include in their stories. You know this will heighten confused complexity. But you also know that confusion can provide a transition between the superficial and the profound if people struggle with a wider range of issues and complexities before they settle for their "answer."
  • Ongoing: "Don't let people languish in the feeling, "Now we have it figured out." They don't have it figured out. Why? It's not that kind of an issue. Recovery is about workable, plausible stories of what we face and what we can do. But these are not final stories. They are stories that should be modified based on new inputs and new opportunities and new setbacks."
  • Plausibility: "Don't let the first plausible account be the last possible story. The first plausible account is assembled to help people make meaning. It is not assembled in the interest of accuracy. We seek swift plausibility rather than slow accuracy in inexplicable times simply because we need "an" explanation, not "the" explanation. Help people get that first story. But then help them revise it, enrich it, replace it."
  • Enactment: "Help people keep moving and keep paying attention. When people are animated, their actions are small experiments that help make sense of perilous times. Wise leaders protect that process and that truth."
This has been the second of a series of transitions from the About Leadership tool in the Leadership Toolbox to the WFLDP blog.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Staff Ride Guide

Were you aware that there is a revised version of the Wildland Fire Staff Ride Guide that was released in November 2010.

In "Forest Service Practice #15 - Staff Rides" Jim Cook, U.S. Forest Service Fire Training Projects Coordinator and Chairman of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee, compiled the following information regarding staff rides. For complete information, visit the Staff Ride Library in the Leadership Toolbox.

A staff ride is essentially a case study that is conducted on the ground where the event happened. In application, leaders revisit the scene of past fires to examine and analyze the decisions and actions that occurred on those fires. A well designed staff ride involves three phases: the first phase is a directed preliminary self-study that engages participants in reading and information gathering about the selected incident; in the second phase, participants visit the actual site of the incident as a group, accompanied by a cadre of subject matter experts; and the third phase is an integration session that allows participants an opportunity to share and discuss the insights and lessons they derived from the preliminary study and the site visit.

The intent of a staff ride is to put participants in the shoes of the decision makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future. A staff ride should not be a tactical-fault finding exercise. Participants should be challenged to push past the basic question of "What happened?" and examine the deeper questions of leadership and decision-making: "What would I have done in this person's place?" "How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?" "Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?" "What explains repeated organizational success or failure?" The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcend time and place.

The staff ride concept was developed by the Prussian Army in the nineteenth century. The U.S. Army War College adopted the technique in 1906. In the 1970's the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps turned to staff rides with great enthusiasm and now they are considered essential educational techniques for advanced military schools as well as for operational field units. In 1999, the wildland fire service conducted its first formal staff ride at the site of the Dude Fire on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona.

Beginning in 2001, the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program began a national on-line Staff Ride Library to support the use of the technique at all organizational levels. Currently there are more than a dozen nationally significant historical incidents with complete staff ride packages developed and archived in the library. Staff rides are used as a delivery method for the L-580 Leadership is Action course that is targeted for Incident Management Team command and staff positions. In addition, a number of local field units have begun to develop staff rides for locally significant incidents.

Staff rides are a superb tool for developing the decision-making skills of leaders at all levels. The 2002 National Fire Plan fully endorses the use of staff rides as a decision-making and leadership development tool for fire management personnel at all levels and lists the implementation of this technique as Task G1B / Item 4 in the Ten-Year Comprehensive Strategy.

Ideas for Wider Use:
  • Utilize staff rides to add an experiential learning aspect to key leader position courses such as Initial Attack and Extended Attack Incident Commander, Type 2 Burn Boss, and Local Fire Management Leadership.
  • Utilize staff rides for team building and continuing education at regional and national meetings.
  • Utilize staff rides for all hazard incident learning.
Critical Success Factors:
  • Experienced facilitation. An effective learning environment can only be created by a cadre of facilitators that have a combined background in fostering open two-way interaction among participants and a thorough understanding of the events being focused on during the staff ride.
  • Multiple perspectives. A staff ride should avoid be a recital of a single investigation report. Such reports rarely address the human factors that affect individual decision-making. For this reason, providing participants with a variety of information sources is important, especially in the preliminary study phase.
  • Logistical pre-planning. Staff rides are an educational event delivered in a field setting. Time needs to be dedicated to addressing the logistical aspects of moving people to and around the site as well as the location and timing of the various stops during the site visit and integration phases.
  • Experiential learning
  • Leadership development
  • Learning from past mistakes and successes
  • Emotional imprint from “real” past events

Thursday, January 6, 2011

General Colin Powell on Leadership

Over the next few months, we will be moving items from the About Leadership tool in the Leadership Toolbox to the blog.

This week's transition is a PowerPoint presentation called A Leadership Primer by General Colin Powell, Chairman (Retired), Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Taking Time to Reflect - A Look at HROs

Over the last decade, leaders in the wildland fire service have become well acquainted with the concept of a high reliability organization (HRO). According to Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, an HRO is “as organization that operates continuously under trying conditions and has fewer than its share of major incidents.

HROs following these principles:
  • Track small failures.
  • Resist oversimplification.
  • Maintain a sensitivity to operations.
  • Maintain capabilities for resilience.
  • Take advantage of shifting locations of expertise.

Many HROs adopt the following subcultures which James Reason says, in Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents, promotes a safety culture (adapted from the GAIN Working Group E’s A Roadmap to a Just Culture – Enhancing the Safety Environment):

  • Just culture – An atmosphere of trust in which people are encouraged (even rewarded) for providing essential safety-related information, but in which they are also clear about where the line must be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
  • Reporting culture – An organizational climate in which people are prepared to report their errors and near-misses.
  • Learning culture – An organization that must possess the willingness and the competence to draw the right conclusions from its safety information system and will to implement major reforms.
  • Flexible culture – A culture in which an organization is able to reconfigure themselves in the face of high tempo operations or certain kinds of danger – often shifting from the conventional hierarchical mode to a flatter mode.

In a Harvard Business Review blog posting by Peter Bergman called The Best Way to Use the Last Five Minutes of Your Day, Bergman believes that organizations should teach their employees to “look at their past behavior, figure out what worked, and repeat it while admitting honestly what didn’t and change it.” He goes on to say, “That’s how people become life-long learners. And it’s how companies become learning organizations.”

Do you take time at the end of the day to reflect upon your day—to see if what you expected to happen actually happened? Are you a life-long learner? Does your organization foster a safety culture?

Leadership Challenge:
The Transport Canada website hosts Reason’s Checklist for Assessing Institutional Resilience. How does your organization rate?