Thursday, April 18, 2013

"General Failure" - A Look Within

(Photo credit: Veterans Today)

By Randy Skelton
Deputy Fire Staff Officer
Payette National Forest Service
NWCG Leadership Committee Acting U.S. Forest Service Representative

Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas E. Ricks' 12-page article "General Failure," although military-based, poses a lot of interesting correlations to the wildland fire service.

"General Failure" is a story of how the senior levels of the military have allowed the mission-driven culture to erode and the effects that has had on their ability to manage wars strategically. It has a lot of lessons of the effects of overloading a bureaucracy with too many senior leaders, as has happened to the U.S. military over the last 20 years.

Most importantly, "General Failure" sets the record straight on the performance of some key senior commanders. Students of leadership who have attended the L-580 Gettysburg Staff Ride may draw a parallel between General Tommy Franks' failure to capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora and General Meade's letting Lee’s army slip out of his grasp at Gettysburg.

This article also shows how the loss of the mission-driven culture by the senior levels has impacted the military, and how remarkably different that is from the World War II culture.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge

As you read the article, reflect upon your own organization. Do you see similarities to the erosion of the mission-driven culture and our ability to manage fires strategically? Consider the following:
  • Leadership development
  • Risk aversion/risk taking/risk management
  • Self-assessment of one’s leadership abilities
  • Is our “system” designed to build and develop leaders?
  • Are we allowing or promoting or placing the most competent leaders in the right positions?
  • Do our most senior leaders micro-manage or are they too much into the tactics?
  • Do we have a lack of accountability?
  • Do we suffer from a “short-term focus” and ignore the long-term objectives (i.e., clearly defining an “end state”)?
  • Is it someone else’s problem?
  • Are leadership failures ever addressed?
  • Accountability of performance?
  • Global situational awareness…things beyond our sphere
A Personal Reflection

A couple correlations that stand out to me is how vastly different each forest and region operate.
“Observers moving from one part of Iraq to another were often struck by the extent to which each division was fighting its own war, with its own assessment of threat, its own solutions, and its own rules of engagement.” 
“One reason for such distinctly different approaches was that conditions were very different in each of these areas. But another reason was that each division commander received little strategic guidance from Sanchez.”
One of the many statements I liked in the article, “As is often the case in war, the question is not whether the troops can adapt, but whether leaders can.”

Thanks to Mark Smith, Mission-Centered Solutions, for sharing this article and his perspectives.

Perspectives from the Field

Fire Staff Officer/Type 2 IC Comments:
I read each word of the paper you shared. Something that I have struggled with for a long time in my role as a FFMO is “They are expected to coordinate and control multiple branches, such as artillery, cavalry, and engineers-that is, to become generalists.” When you look at our roles, the organization above us has multiple specialists: Operations (Crews, Engines, Dozers), Fuels (NEPA, FACTS), Aviation (Contracts, Retardant Avoidance, Airtanker, SEATS, Helicopters, Carding), Risk Management, Training/Qualification (IFPM, FSFPM, IQCS, 5140, Succession Planning), Human Resources (Staffing, Performance, Outreach, 52 Tracker, Pathways, Apprentices), Planning/Budget (FPA, Work Plan, Travel Caps, Micro Purchasing), Grants/Agreements (Coop Agreements, AOP’s) and I’m sure there are many I have missed. I have struggled personally to make a mindful decision to accept that I am a generalist in many of these, and I try and focus on what’s important and that’s giving folks as clear leaders intent as I can to allow them to be successful. The degree to how successful or unsuccessful I am is determined ultimately by the folks on the ground and I place less emphasis on the bureaucracy above me. Knowing that there is risk with that but it’s a risk I feel is appropriate.

The other part that struck home was “Not coincidentally, appropriate risk-taking diminished (the art of combat pursuit was almost lost in Vietnam), and a 'cover your ass' mentality took hold."

A great article that is a great tool to make a guy take a tactical pause, reflect and make efforts for self-improvement.

Fire Operations Specialist (FOS) Comments:
I thought the article had a lot of merit with where we are as an agency. I agree that this is something for us to seriously think about. What I found most profound is why, as an agency, we don’t have similar critical observations and evaluation of our shortcomings. All organizations have critical areas needing improvement and that will never change, but viewing the blind spot is often difficult. We know the ability to make change is directly linked to the ability to identify. There is no lack of critical evaluation in the military, politics or the private sector, so why does it seem to be lacking in our agency? Are we scared to solicit it? The military’s stakes are high; lives. Political stakes are high; votes. The private sector’s stakes are high; livelihood and the dollar. So what do we as an agency have at stake? It would seem the responsibility of developing tomorrow’s leaders, being accountable for our actions, placing the most competent leaders in the right positions, addressing leadership failures and clearly communicating end state would qualify. I feel our stakes are just as high, but we might not always share that same perspective as an organization. Hopefully this will provide us, as an organization, an opportunity for some critical introspection with a little facilitation.

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