Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Leadership Lessons from Crack the Whip

Crack the Whip by Winslow Homer
(Photo: Winslow Homer on Wikipedia)
We can learn a lot about leadership from simple children's games. Crack the Whip literally shows the power of influence.

About the Game

Here is how Wikipedia explains the game:
Crack the Whip is a simple outdoor children's game that involves physical coordination, and is usually played in small groups, either on grass or ice. One player, chosen as the "head" of the whip, runs (or skates) around in random directions, with subsequent players holding on to the hand of the previous player. The entire "tail" of the whip moves in those directions, but with much more force toward the end of the tail. The longer the tail, the more the forces act on the last player, and the tighter they have to hold on.
As the game progresses, and more players fall off, some of those who were previously located near the end of the tail and have fallen off can "move up" and be in a more secure position by grabbing onto the tail as it is moving, provided they can get back on before some of the others do. There is no objective to this game other than the enjoyment of the experience.

Chicago Crack the Whip scuplture
(Photo credit: Chicago Outdoor Sculptures blog)
Leadership Lessons

Here are a few lessons that I picked up from Crack the Whip.
  • The game doesn't start until the leader acts.
  • Leaders have the ability to influence their followers in a big and powerful way with little effort.
  • A leader doesn't have much of an impact without the assistance of other players.
  • Team collaboration can affect leader's intent in a powerful way.
  • Team members have the ability to manipulate leader's intent.
  • Failures don't stop the game. When you get thrown from the whip, you can get back up and rejoin the effort.
  • Everyone is safe from harm if participants abide by the rules of respectful play.
About the Author:

Pam McDonald is a writer/editor for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Food for Thought - Leading by Example

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion. – Paul Coelho

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion. – Paul Coelho

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Depth of Field, or what I’ve learned about life and leadership from photography

by Justin Vernon

Instrument panel

Right, first an admission. I actually haven’t learned all that much about life and leadership from my favorite hobby. It did lend itself to a clever title, however, and a slew of analogies and different ways of thinking about life and leadership that I’ve found useful and/or amusing.

A definition to start… Depth of Field in this sense refers to the area of a photograph that’s in focus. A wide depth of field means more is in focus, while a narrow depth of field means less is in focus – more of the image is blurred out.

1) Depth of field itself. A narrow focus (small depth of field) in life or in a task can blind us to what else is happening around us. If we’re so focused on a single subject or task that we lose sight of the big picture, and what else is happening around us, we open ourselves up to missing something important. As a leader this really applies to safety in that it’s our job to keep an eye on the big picture and see what hazards might be sneaking up on us. In our personal lives if we focus too intently on something – say work or a hobby – we can be oblivious to what’s going on with those we hold dear. It’s important to be aware of more than just our immediate concerns if we have the time and ability to do so.

Now a narrow depth of field isn’t always a bad thing. In photography, it can be used to draw the attention of the viewer to a certain person, object, or aspect of an image, and reduce the distractions of other things in the frame. Similarly, there are times when it’s best that our attention as leaders is tightly focused on a task or subject, and we ignore the background clutter that can distract us. I know that in my experience there are occasions when there are simply too many details to tackle at once in a large project or task, and the only way to succeed is to focus on one item at a time. Like anything else, it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to let yourself get drawn in and ignore the clutter in the background, and when to step back a bit and make sure you’re seeing the whole picture.

2) One thing that I’ve really come to appreciate in life and in photography is that success is often based on being in the right place at the right time. There are often opportunities in life that can only be pursued if you’re in the right place at the right time. Sometimes this is based on luck, sometimes it’s based on skill and pre-planning, and many times it’s a combination of both. In my experience, my favorite images and memories have all been of times where I found myself in the right place with the right tools to succeed. It takes effort to be in the right place and prepared when opportunity arises, but it’s worth it.

3) Sometimes the best camera or tool is the one you have – don’t let what you don’t have spoil your vision or prevent you from being successful. Photographers and most fire people I know are a gear-crazy bunch. There’s always some new camera, lens, piece of equipment, or tool that will make your images come out better or let you put out more fires But it doesn’t matter if you don’t have it with you or it doesn’t work when opportunity presents itself. Some of my favorite pictures have been when I didn’t have my best camera with me, and I used what I had on hand. In fire, we frequently lack the “best” tools do a task, and so we make do with what we have. It’s a core value in our can-do culture, and a subject of pride that we can do more with less. Some of the most impressive feats of ingenuity I’ve ever seen have been performed by firefighters making the best of what they have to take advantage of an opportunity. Rather than complain about what you don’t have, use what you do have to seize the moment.

This leads to:

5) Sometimes you just can’t do what you want to do with what you have. There are in fact limitations of tools, skill, resources. This shouldn’t stop you from taking pictures or doing your job, but sometimes the truth is that you need something specific to meet your goal. When you find yourself without the tools or people you need, don’t try to make it work just to be disappointed with the results. Work within the limitations of your gear and your people to set reasonable and achievable goals. Success for a type 6 engine crew looks different than success for a hotshot crew. Don’t expect your people to do something they aren’t capable of – that is, don’t set them up to fail by having unreasonable expectations. In photography it’s silly to expect someone with an iPhone to take images of the same quality as someone with an $8,000 camera. In fire it’s similarly silly to expect the same results from a 3-person engine crew as you’d expect from a 20-person hotshot crew. You can be successful with both, but it will look different. Recognize your limitations, and define your success accordingly.

4) Previsualization is important, but you have to communicate your vision to your team. Many good photographers make a point of previsualizing their images – that is, they know how the want the image to look before they even set up their equipment. When I wander around, I usually have a set of ideas for cool images in my head, and I’m always on the lookout for a scene that fits what I’ve previsualized. The same goes for fire, with one added component: A great idea that sits in your head is of no value to your team unless you give them good leaders intent. You may have the perfect scheme for a project, but unless those around you understand not only the how but the why, it will be difficult to see your vision become reality. In a leadership environment, how you shape and share your vision of success with others matters.

6) Being a leader is about making others look good. Your goal shouldn’t be to make yourself look good (like a selfie posted on social media), but to make others look good (like taking a portrait of someone else). Being a good photographer is about focusing attention on your subject, not yourself. Leadership is the same. Focus the attention on your people – they’re the ones who deserve it.

7) It took me a while to realize that sometimes people are like raw, unprocessed images – not much to look at on first glance, but with a little effort on your part can truly shine. A good photographer knows that some rough images can be turned into works of art, and a good leader knows when to give people a chance and work with them to be all that they’re capable of. Leadership is about recognizing potential in people, and helping them reach it.

So there’s nothing really groundbreaking in this post. It’s all about things we’ve heard and done before. But there’s always a new way to look at a topic, and new angles to view it from. This is just another way that I’ve found interesting and somewhat useful.

Until next time…

Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin works for the United States Forest Service and is a member of Sparks for Professional Reading Program Change. Check out his Chasing Fire blog. All expressions are those of the author.

Followership is Leadership - 2015 Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge

2015 Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge logo As we prepared to ring in the new year, the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program (WFLDP) we challenge our followers to take the 2015 Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge. This year's theme is Followership to Leadership. 

New in 2015 is a change from an inwardly-focused campaign to an interdisciplinary challenge. Looking beyond self, the wildland fire service is challenging those within its sphere of influence to join our movement to IGNITE the Spark for Leadership—wherever we may live and work.

Visit the WFLDP website to download your copy of the 2015 Wildland Fire Leadership ChallengeFollowership to Leadership Reference Guide


Mission: The mission of the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program is “to promote cultural change in the workforce and to emphasize the vital importance of leadership concepts in the wildland fire service by providing educational and leadership development opportunities.” The challenge provides potential local or self-directed leadership development resources focused on a central theme with the intent of strengthening the wildland fire service and the community as a whole.

Theme: The theme for the 2015 challenge is Followership to Leadership. The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program recognizes “followership” as the first level of leadership. Leaders cannot lead without good followers. Good followers provide a foundation upon which better leaders of people, leaders of leaders, and leaders of organizations is built.

Task: Provide an opportunity for personnel at the local level—whether collectively or through self-development—to focus leadership development activities relating to the national challenge theme: Followership is Leadership.

  • To foster a cohesive effort to promote leadership development across disciplines.
  • To provide a template that can be used to encourage leadership development at the local unit level.
  • To provide a mechanism to collect innovative leadership development efforts and share across disciplines.
End State: Creation of a culture that willingly shares innovative leadership development efforts in order to maintain superior interdisciplinary leadership.

Dates of Challenge: Any time between January 1, 2015, and November 30, 2015.

Length of Challenge: Determined locally to meet the goals and the objectives of the local unit or team.

Audience: The target audience is all wildland fire personnel—line-going and support; however, we encourage other disciplines to IGNITE the Spark for Leadership and take the challenge.

Implementation: The challenge is flexible. Local units or teams may use or adapt any or all materials contained within this document or develop a program or activity spotlighting the challenge theme. Challenge coordinators are encouraged to think outside the confines of the template and develop a program that meets local and individual needs. Innovation should fuel your challenge delivery: workshops or tailgate sessions, to kick off staff meetings, as a team activity or self-directed, etc.

Measuring Success:
  • Local: Local unit leaders and managers will determine what “success” looks like and how participation will be recognized by those involved. 
  • National: A committee formed by the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee will recognize one unit’s contribution to the challenge through the IGNITE the Spark for Leadership Contest. (See complete details below.)
Recognizing Local Unit Participation:
  • A sample certificate is available at the end of this document to acknowledge students of fire participating in the leadership challenge at the local level.

IGNITE the Spark for Leadership Contest – From the Field for the Field

Throughout the nation, leaders are building teams and developing their people using tools they have found or developed themselves. Imagine if our leaders and their subordinates shared their experiences and successes with each other. Consider the possibility of going to a website and having a ready-made palette of leadership development tools from which to choose—items from the field for the field.

Using the spirit of healthy competition, the IGNITE the Spark for Leadership Contest is intended to be one of the mechanisms used to collect innovative leadership development efforts to be shared across disciplines.

The IGNITE the Spark for Leadership Contest is an optional component of the Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge and limited to entities with a tie to the wildland fire service. Items to submit:
  • Required: 
    • Written summary not to exceed ten (10) pages. (See “Judging” section for what to address.)
  • Recommended:
    • Supplementary materials not to exceed thirty (30) pages or pieces. May include, but is not limited to, photos, videos, and materials used.
  • Optional (but highly encouraged and can be done with coordination of the NWCG Leadership Committee Logistics Coordinator):
    • Promote your leadership challenge through social media networks such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Provide a social media journal (can be very simple) and URLs for your pages.
Send your challenge documentation to:
  • Mail: NWCG Leadership Subcommittee
    Attention: Pam McDonald
    3833 South Development Avenue
    Boise, ID 83705

All entries will be judged on the following criteria:
  • Local unit information:
    • Name of participating unit/team
    • Point of contact (POC) name
    • POC contact information (telephone, physical address, and e-mail)
    • Number of individuals participating—include percentage of personnel involved
    • Brief description of challenge activities
  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Apparent tie-in to the WFLDP values and principles 
  • Comprehensiveness of challenge (several elements used versus one or two and focus on challenge)
  • Inclusiveness (all personnel considered target audience)
  • Level of participation by target audience
  • Interdisciplinary impact
Winner Recognition
The NWCG Leadership Subcommittee will determine how award winner(s) will be recognized (e.g., plaque, trophy) on a yearly basis. Winner(s) and those recognized for honorable mention will also be featured on and through various media sites and publications.

Entry Deadline
November 30, 2015

Followership is Leadership banner

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Food for Thought - Merry Christmas

May you have the gladness of Christmas which is hope; The spirit of Christmas which is peace; The heart of Christmas which is love.  Ada V. Hendricks

May you have the gladness of Christmas which is hope;
The spirit of Christmas which is peace;
The heart of Christmas which is love.
~ Ada V. Hendricks ~

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Invisible Heroes

Medal of Honor recipient William Crawford
(Photo credit: Home of Heroes)
“It’s not life that’s important, but those you meet along the way that make the difference.” - Unknown
They live and dwell among us. They may be someone we know or someone with whom we have little contact. They are ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Most go undetected; the just do their jobs. These men and women are unknown heroes until someone reveals their story.

In "A Janitor's Ten Lessons in Leadership," Col. James Moshgat shares a moving story of William "Bill" Crawford, a janitor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Mr. Crawford wasn't just any janitor, he was a World War II Medal of Honor recipient. For many years, Mr. Crawford went unnoticed. However, that all changed when cadet Moshgat came across Crawford's remarkable story. Once Crawford's story was told, his status went to hero in no time. 

Janitor Crawford was a humble man, giving his best effort. The difference from one day to the next was the perception of those around him. 

Moshgat shares the following leadership lessons about his experience:
  • Be cautious of labels.
  • Everyone deserves respect.
  • Courtesy makes a difference.
  • Take time to know your people.
  • Anyone can be a hero.
  • Leaders should be humble.
  • Life won't always hand you what you think you deserve.
  • No job is beneath a leader.
  • Pursue excellence.
  • Life is a leadership laboratory.
Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper

Read and discuss "A Janitor's Ten Lessons in Leadership" by Col. James Moshgat.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Food for Thought - Leading Up

Just as communicating with the team builds trust, so does communicating with supervisors. ~ Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 52
Just as communicating with the team builds trust, so does communicating with supervisors. ~ Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 52
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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Jig

Woodworking jig
(Photo credit: Mike's Woodworking)

The Jig
by Jay C Stalnacker

I’ve been working with my hands my entire life. As a young boy, I learned how to tinker with cars, shape wood, weld and bend metal in my grandfather's workshop. I began to design and build furniture in my early teens and would eventually work through college and into early adulthood working for or owning my own cabinet and furniture shop.

I found building something with my hands by beginning with a thought in my head and ending with a functional or artistic purpose was very gratifying. It was and still is amazing to watch a piece of wood or block of metal transform into something beautiful and useful. Early I considered my skills more a necessity than anything as it paid many bills and enabled me to fight fire seasonally. Later I would humbly realize it as a gift.

I have built and designed just about everything you can imagine: cars, motorcycles, tables, chairs, sculptures and homes. Many times after I’ve completed a project, I would wake up in the middle of the night and walk out to the shop and just stare in wonder as I proudly admired the finished work. Even after the many hours of designing, molding, shaping, repairing and sanding, I still found it unbelievable that I had built this with my own hands. I think of all the furniture, sculptures and many other project and wonder if the client still has it or if it’s in one piece. I would tell a customer this is something for you now but will be a memory for your children later.

Of course there were many bad designs and mistakes. Many started projects that ended crushed with a hammer or placed on a shelf in the corner. I was either not happy with where it was headed or unsure how to finish it. I’ve never designed and built from blueprints; and when I had to, it was painful. I found the exact numbers and formulas only created restrictions and limitations. I believe more in creative freedom and artistic vision.

No matter the project, there was always an opportunity to make a template. My grandfather and many other great artists I’ve worked for and with would always say the template is the hardest to make. A template in this world is oftentimes referred to as a “jig.” The jig was always the most time consuming and difficult to make. It required and artist's eye and an engineer's calculations. As much as I hated blueprints, I cherished the time making a template. It was a way for me to take all of my lessons learned, tricks and ideas and make something sturdy that would be used time after time for a more efficient, safe and effective piece of the project. The jig was the key to one locked door; and as you worked through a design making jig after jig, you would eventually end up with a finished piece of art. Jigs were as simple as a piece of wood and two clamps or complicated as a engineered machine. In any case, the jig, once completed, allowed for precision and efficiency. It was a way to ensure every table had the same tapered legs or each door had the exact hinge location.

As I am now many lifetimes away from those long days in the workshop, I realize more than ever the connection between creating art and leadership. As a artist, you find it difficult to be creative with the constraints of blueprints and exact numbers. A good leader also struggles with the constraints of the textbook world of checklists and formulas for success. Leaders and artist are more successful with creative freedom. Judging each cut, chisel and stroke by the material we are dealing with. Just like wood requires different methods and tools than metal, we must look at each of our followers as different materials. We can shape and mold them; but recognizing the differences, will make the effort much easier and more lasting when done.

As artists and leaders, we make mistakes. There are many designs best left unfinished and many followers who will never make it as far as we hope. It’s the great leader who recognizes the follower's limitations and leads them towards a successful future. An artist and a leader understand both the value in creativity and also consistency. Just as the artist knows the value in a good jig,a great leader spends time building templates to make the effort easier as we develop followers of differing skills and abilities. They both understand that there is never just one way to make something; having a consistent template ensures the basics will not be missed and more time can be spent on the challenges.

This week step outside your blueprint. Begin to work with your children, spouse and followers with a artistic touch. Understand each is a different material; and although our “go-to” tools and templates will work sometimes, a creative vision will result in a completed project that you will be proud to look at as they move towards success.

Jay C Stalnacker

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Food for Thought - Optimism

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. –Helen Keller
Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. ~ Helen Keller
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Followership is Leadership - 2015 Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge

Followership is Leadership Banner

The theme for the 2015 challenge is Followership to Leadership. The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program recognizes "followership" as the first level of leadership. Leaders cannot lead without good followers. Good followers provide a foundation upon which better leaders of people, leaders of leaders, and leaders of organizations is built.


Provide an opportunity for personnel at the local level—whether collectively or through self-development—to focus leadership development activities relating to the national challenge theme: Followership is Leadership.

Purpose:ignite the spark for leadership button
  • To foster a cohesive effort to promote leadership development across disciplines.
  • To provide a template that can be used to encourage leadership development at the local unit level.
  • To provide a mechanism to collect innovative leadership development efforts and share across disciplines.
End State:

Creation of a culture that willingly shares innovative leadership development efforts in order to maintain superior interdisciplinary leadership.

Join the movement today by downloading your copy of the Followership to Leadership: Wildland Fire Leadership Reference Guide.

Answering the Call Without Risking Your Life Risk

Poster: Because duty can take our people into dangerous situations, fire leaders reciprocarte their loyalty by looking out for their safety and well-being in all circumstances.

Risk: The possibility that something unpleasant or dangerous might happen
By Tom L. Thompson, Retired U. S. Forest Service

Watching the memorial for the Granite Mountain Hotshots last week, all I could do was again wish it weren’t so. Another 19 firefighters lost almost exactly 19 years after the pain and sadness that was experienced in 1994 when 14 firefighters were lost at South Canyon in Colorado. My mind revisited past discussions about why this happened, what went wrong, and how this could have happened. Then that word, “risk” came to mind.

In his remarks at the Prescott memorial, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden acknowledged that we should be thankful for firefighters, their lives for their neighbors and those who are endangered. He said, “They were risking laying down their lives every single time they answered a call.” I paused and thought about those words. Is this really our expectation and the message that we want to intend?” I think not. I hope not!

From what I understand, representatives from every hotshot crew in the country were at the memorial and I hope those folks did not take the message back to their crews that they are expected to take risks and we are proud of them because they do. I know that Vice-President Biden was probably very the wildland firefighter, but I hope we have enough confidence in our ability to fight fire safely that we do not have the expectation or send the message to our fire crews that they will be “risking laying down their lives every single time they answer a call.”

But if we do not have that expectation, it is still difficult to not consider to what degree taking unnecessary risk played in the South Canyon (1994), 30 Mile (2001), Cramer (2003), and Yarnell (2013) fire fatalities, each of these incidents and certainly others that have occurred. We understand the different views of risk. One is to take risk and one is to avoid risk. In wildland firefighting, the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders, the 18 Watchout Situations, the policies, the procedures, the safety equipment, the extensive training, and our many years of experience and entire safety system are
there to eliminate risk.

Admittedly, there is always risk to some degree. Driving the car, riding in an airplane, hiking, golfing, biking, boating, cooking, sky diving and virtually everything we do throughout our lives potentially involves some risk. But we manage that risk by wearing our seatbelt, driving defensively, taking cover in bad weather, wearing a life jacket, using care with sharp knives, using safety gear and virtually hundreds upon hundreds things that we do every single day.

We learn not to take risks as kids and try to teach our children about the risk of burns, falls, lightning and crossing the street. In the Forest Service, virtually every fire training course’s main focus is either about reducing risk or focuses on it to a large degree.

We learn from those who are more experienced. We learn about fire weather. We learn how to properly use equipment. We learn how to work together with others and how fire incidents are managed safely. We learn about personal responsibility and fire leadership. I was never in a fire session or briefing where anyone ever taught me how to take risks. Everything I learned in my 37 years with the Forest Service was focused on not taking risks.

Going the other way, however, is what appears to be an ever increasing tendency today in our society to get excited about taking risk. The X Games, NASCAR racing, walking on a cable across the Grand
Canyon, riding bulls, running with the bulls, skiing down from the summit of the Grand Teton, skateboarding, chasing tornadoes and the list goes on and on.

In reviewing the accident investigation reports for most of the fire fatalities mentioned above, a pattern is fairly clear on common factors that increased risk significantly and likely ultimately played
a part in the cause of the fatalities. The following are cited over and over again:
  • Key policies and procedures were not followed, i.e. 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watchout Situations;
  • Failure to recognize or react to changing conditions (situational awareness);
  • Changing conditions were principally caused by approaching weather in mid to late afternoon;
  • Safety zones were either non-existent or too far or too difficult to get to; and
  • Command and control of the incidents were compromised because of leadership issues or communication failure.
In short, unnecessary risks were taken by not following direction and failing to recognize what was happening.

Reflecting back 19 years, the issue of risk was not directly spoken to in the South Canyon Investigative report, but the can-do spirit was discussed and identified as significant causal factor. The can-do spirit issue was perhaps another way of saying that we can do it in spite of the risks. The
South Canyon Report described it in just a couple of sentences:

Page 28, Attitudes (significantly contributed):
  • The can-do attitude of the smokejumpers and hotshots compromised the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watchout Situations.
  • Despite the fact that they recognized that the situation was dangerous, the firefighters who had concerns about building the west flank questioned the jumper in charge but chose to continue construction.
On the day of the Yarnell Fire in fall 2013, fire officials received word at 3:26 p.m. that heavy winds from a thunderstorm were moving into the area. At 4:47 p.m., the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped and deploying shelters as a last resort. What happened in that hour exactly will likely never be known, but we do know that as conditions changed they were too late in responding and the safety zone was too far away.

We have had many discussions about taking risk and how we project the concept to our fire fighters, especially those who are new and perhaps less experienced. As leaders, words and actions are very important. It is important that we make it very clear that we do everything we possibly can to eliminate risk to firefighters and to the public. Again, we have long tested equipment, procedures, policies and standard orders.

We train our folks to know how to use equipment safely, and understand basic procedures, policies and orders. We insist that people understand the standard fire orders and watchout situations. All of these are designed to reduce and eliminate risk. We follow these procedures, understand specific fire orders and use protective equipment because they have proven to reduce our risk. We evacuate, we curtail air operations and we withdraw or pull back. We do these things because the situation changes and to be safe we respond.

In 2005, Kelly R. Close from the Poudre Fire Authority in Fort Collins, CO, spoke at the 8th Annual Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Missoula, MT. His words capture the essence of our challenge. He described the situation we find ourselves in all too often.
 “We often tend to define success as the accomplishment of some pre-determined objective.
“We contain and control the fire as expected, accomplish the objectives as set forth in the incident action plan, and as usual, as expected, no one gets hurt. But sometimes success can just as readily be defined by one’s persistence in expecting the unexpected, anticipating failure, updating this continuous process of maintaining mindfulness with new information and ultimately preventing a serious accident when things don’t go as expected (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001).

“On fires such as Cramer or South Canyon, the fire environment dictated the fire intensity and growth. Sometimes Mother Nature has the upper hand, and ‘success’ might be simply recognizing this and getting out of the way.”

It is of utmost importance to make certain that the folks on the ground know that they are not to take risks, that they do not feel they are expected to take risks and that they do not have license to take risks. The job they do carries with it inherent risk but if they follow procedures, use good judgment and stay alert, they will be safe.

We expect them to make sound, conservative decisions, adjust accordingly and certainly not choose the path that has signs indicating increased risk posted every place you look. I hope and pray that they will not have the idea that they will be risking laying down their lives every single time they answer a call.

This view may not be shared by some folks in the fire organization and perhaps oversimplifies the situation, but as a line officer in the Forest Service for most of my over 37 years, I believe we need to be very clear about what we expect. Answer the call without risking your life!

This article ran in  the National Wildfire Suppression Association's Fireline magazine, Winter 2014 and is reprinted with permission from Fireline and author Tom Thompson.

Tom L. Thompson retired in 2005 as Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service after a 37 year career that included assignments in Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.  He spent over 26 years of that time as a District Ranger, Forest Supervisor, Deputy Regional Forester, and Deputy Chief.  As Deputy Chief for the National Forest System he had overall responsibility for the all management programs on 151 National Forests and 22 National Grasslands.  For a number of years he was Chair of the agency’s fire Line Officers Team (LOT), a leadership presenter at Fire Management Leadership training in Marana, and a team leader on a number of national fire accident investigations and reviews. He also was co-team leader of the interagency Cerro Grande investigation in New Mexico in 2000. The views expressed are those of the author.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Food for Thought - Motivation

Leaders understand that people derive motivation from individual values and needs; others cannot force a person to be motivated any more than one person can force another to change. –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 46
Leaders understand that people derive motivation from individual values and needs; others cannot force a person to be motivated any more than one person can force another to change. –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 46
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Friday, December 12, 2014

Hangry AARs?

After action review
(Photo credit: Springs Fire - 2012; Kari Greer/USFS)
Hangry AARs?
by Travis Dotson

Richard Sinkovitz of the Arrowhead Hotshots brought this subject to my attention and inspired this piece; his original thoughts close it out.

When do we conduct AAR’s? After shift right? If it was a “good” shift, you know, slamming line, chasing spots, putting fire down and pushing 16 to turn the corner...everyone is tired. Everyone’s blood sugar is low. Then we circle up to talk.

Check this out. Research conducted at Ohio State University showed that lower levels of blood sugar were a reliable predictor of how angry and aggressive one would act towards their spouse.

“The study shows how one simple, often overlooked factor–hunger caused by low levels of blood glucose–may play a role in marital arguments, confrontations and possibly even some domestic violence,” said Brad Bushman, lead author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.

Our fellow crewmembers may not be our “spouses” (although there is plenty of fireline romance leading to spousedom), but we do call these folks our brothers and sisters for a reason. We love to wax poetic about how much like family a crew becomes through shared hardship and plain old hours logged in close proximity. All I’m saying is I feel the comparison is applicable. In fact, I know plenty of spouses who would argue that their significant other is also married to fire and/or “the crew”; and during the season, that marriage gets way more attention than the actual spouse does!

“At the end of the 21 days, people who had generally lower levels of glucose were willing to blast their spouses with unpleasant noises at a higher volume and for a longer time than those who had higher glucose levels.” At the end of a long shift, roll, or season for that matter,the likelihood of insults and Gatorade bottles being hurled in the back of the buggy increases, right? We all know we get testy when were tired; but add hungry, and it’s a double whammy.

“People can relate to this idea that when they get hungry, they get cranky,” Bushman said.

We know this. We call it getting “Hangry.” (For those of you not down with the latest street jive, Hungry + Angry = Hangry.)

Under what conditions do we conduct AARs?


Sure, it’s not every shift we do AARs in hangry mode. Half the time the mopup shift was so boring, we started sport eating around 0900. We may not be as blood sugar-challenged for those particular end-of-shift, show-and-tell sessions; but there’s often not much action to review on those days. The shifts full of action are the ones packed with potential learning. These are shifts most likely to benefit future operations if we dig deep with the review and discussion…but we’re tired and hungry after those shifts.

“Even those who reported they had good relationships with their spouses were more likely to express anger if their blood glucose levels were lower.”

Of course not every bust-ass shift with lots of learning potential is going to result in harsh words and a crew brawl because there was nothing left in the proverbial gas tank. Often those shifts go very well, and there is not much resentment or hostility to kick start the anger. But every so often there is a shift or series of shifts rife with opposing views and high stakes – perfect ingredients for a juicy AAR. It’s in those instances, we might want to take this research into account.

“Bushman said that glucose is fuel for the brain. The self-control needed to deal with anger and aggressive impulses takes energy, and that energy is provided in part by glucose.”

“Even though the brain is only 2 percent of our body weight, it consumes about 20 percent of our calories. It is a very demanding organ when it comes to energy,” he said.

Pretty simple. We fuel ourselves for demanding physical labor; let’s also fuel ourselves for demanding conversations.

Remember this whole idea came from a Captain on Arrowhead Hotshots – he sums it up perfectly:
Hey Travis
I was thinking about all of the well-intended AARs that have either been less than effective or poorly timed for whatever reason. It reminded me of a study I was reading about how couples tend to fight more often, have more aggressive feelings, and lack self-control when their blood sugar is low. It got me to thinking about how much more attentive I would have been in general at many AARs in my career if someone had managed the minutes before the AAR a little better. I feel like this might be something worth mentioning somewhere. I know it might be impractical to have a case of candy bars on reserve for every AAR but we often know beforehand when we might be in for a contentious one. Maybe getting some sugar in people’s bellies a few minutes before we start might lead to some more meaningful discussion.

You now have the information. Use it. Lead with compassion. Feed your folks the fuel they need to be productive.

Thanks to regular blog contributor Travis Dotson, Analyst for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee, for this blog. All expressions are those of the author.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Food for Thought - Duty

We serve our people, our communities, and our nation. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 25
We serve our people, our communities, and our nation. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 25
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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gender and Wildfire

YouTube video description: "Dr Christine Eriksen from the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) discusses her new book "Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty". The book examines bushfire awareness and preparedness amongst women, men, households, communities and agencies at the interface between city and beyond. It does so through an examination of two regions where bushfires are common and disastrous: southeast Australia and the west coast United States. Christine follows women's and men's stories of surviving, fighting, evacuating, living and working with bushfire to reveal the intimate inner workings of bushfire response -- and especially the culturally and historically distinct gender relations that underpin bushfire resilience."

 Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper
  • In a small group, discuss Dr. Eriksen's research. 
    • Do men and women handle risk differently?
    • Beyond asset defense, how does information transfer to  the fireline? Do male and female wildland firefighters approach risk management differently?
    • Discuss Ericksen's contention that people in the U.S. are "seen as a liability and want them out."
    • The feelings of competence and confidence are predominately personal in nature. What can be done to help team members build competency and confidence?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Food for Thought - Opportunity

We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations. – Charles Swindoll
We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations. – Charles Swindoll
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Friday, December 5, 2014

Why Leadership?

Mountain photo by Justin Vernon

Why Leadership?
by Justin Vernon

As the year winds and grinds to a close, and I take the time to reflect on what has happened in my life these past 12 months, I thought it would be a good idea to explain a bit why leadership is important to me. This won’t be a long post, and it won’t devolve into the typical ramblings about place, culture, and my latest musings.

To me, leadership is more than a job related responsibility – it’s also part of being a better person in my personal life, away from the job. The skills that are required for “leadership” in my workplace are quite often skills that go hand in hand with being a good human being in general. Things like evaluating arguments for validity while keeping an open mind are great to use away from work. Good communication and listening skills are good to have regardless of the situation. Working well with others just makes sense in our personal lives. Respect for others? Yup. Integrity? Of course that’s important away from the office. Being aware of your actions and their consequences? Indeed, it’s part of it as well.

Giving your best in all that you do. Knowing when to walk away or give in because it’s not your way or nothing… The art of compromise. Valuing relationships over things, even if they are imperfect. Taking the good and bad in stride. Striving for the best while recognizing that failure is a part of life… Treating failure as another chance to learn how to succeed. These are all components of leadership that are essential to success and happiness on and off the job.

In my attempts to become a better person, to better understand the how and why of who I am, I keep coming back to these nearly-universal concepts. Leadership skills are more than just something we do at work, or for work – they are life skills. It should be something that is a part of who we are no matter what the situation. I’m hoping that we all want to be better people, and the skills we use to be better leaders are transferable to our lives outside of our official “leadership” duties.

In my mind, it doesn’t matter if I’m a leader or not – I’m going to try and become a better person by practicing the skills I listed above, and more. It’s not easy, it takes time and commitment, but the benefits extend far beyond the workplace. I hope more people in wildland fire and aviation will understand that the qualities and skills that make a good leader also make us better humans, and that’s every bit as important as being a leader.

Until next time…

Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin works for the United States Forest Service and is a member of Sparks for Professional Reading Program Change. Check out his Chasing Fire blog. All expressions are those of the author.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Food for Thought - Focus

Leaders narrow their focus at each level, identifying the objectives that apply to each level. ~ Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 36
Leaders narrow their focus at each level, identifying the objectives that apply to each level. ~ Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 36
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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fish On!

Fly fishing
(Photo credit: Thomas Northcut/Thinkstock)

by Jay C Stalnacker

A few years back, I started to learn to fly fish. Over the years, I had tried to self teach and had very little success. After all, it seemed fairly simple. Fish eat bugs; and one would assume the bigger the bug, the more likely a fish would want to eat it. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple as fly fishing is both a science and a art. You can educate yourself by reading books. You can buy the most expensive gear. But ultimately it’s about an accurate cast--sending the right fly to an exact spot. It’s a memorizing effort as you stand in the crystal clear mountain water listening to the river glide over rounded rocks. If you know where to look and watch closely, you can actually see the trout nestled in the slower pockets occasionally moving with lightning speed as their favorite food passes by.

Fly fishing is not for the inpatient. It’s a slow, purposeful effort to identify the right bug and the best location. Worse is watching as trout surface to sniff your fly and then dive back under and continue feeding on some unknown food. One also needs to have self control as the knots are small and complex, and the flys are even smaller and a bit sharp. Tying a fly or your line leader can just about send a guy like me into a fit of explosive frustration. Casting is a even bigger test of nerves. Accurate and controlled fly casting is about as difficult as a unbeatable carnival game. Your just about to get it then something goes really wrong like a tangled line in the tree behind you or a fly snagged on your friend's ear.

When it all comes together it is a magically feeling. Looking up, you see rustling fall leaves with vivid reds, greens and yellow glimmer against the clear water; and as you stand in the cool water, you feel grounded and connected to something bigger. Looking around, you begin to identify the insects hatching and flying low over the water; and soon you see a beautiful rainbow trout sipping them off the top of the water while slowly moving against the current upstream. As you cast, you feel the line glide backwards; and with a gentle snap forward, it silently glides past you placing the fly on the surface as if a insect naturally landed. With very little notice, the fish attacks; and your line goes taunt. "Fish on,” you yell. You pull gently but with constant pressure, allowing the hook to set. You cautiously allow the fish some room as the reel spins with tension. Soon the trout is tired and allows you to reel her towards your net. There is always one last effort; and usually as you reach for your net, she will run again often with a violent thrashing. But soon she is worn out and ready. As you hold her in your hand, you look at her beauty as it’s truly a rainbow of colors. Quickly, you unhook the fish and gently place her in the water, helping her catch her breath. Soon she recovers from the fight and swims out of your hands upstream towards freedom.

Granted fishing is not for everyone, but there is a greater lesson in this story. I believe leadership is a lot like fly fishing. There are folks who read a lot of books. They buy all the equipment; and as we say in fire, perfect their “fireline fashion.” They look like the tourist fly fisherman that just left the guide shop. Everything is new and shiny, but they have no idea what to do with it or how to use it. Like fishing, a leader must spend some time on the river occasionally falling in and filling their waders with water. A leader must also learn to read the current of the organization and see the hazards where their line can get caught. They must be able to create strong knots that hold under stress and untie the line when it becomes tangled. Leaders need to be able to see what folks not only need but what they want. A great leader can match that pattern and attract the best followers to surface and join in a fight. They encourage them to to run with the line and fight for what means most. But in the end, they will hold you up while you catch your breath and gently return you to the water always ensuring you're moving up stream.

Leadership takes both science and art; and when those two elements come together, the results are amazing. It’s a truly unique leader that can shout “fish on” as they attract the best to their organization. It’s this leader that is connected with the water and sees what is above and below the surface. This next week spend some time standing in the current; identify the folks that are looking upwards and help them move up stream.

Jay C Stalnacker

Jay Stalnacker, a regular blog contributor, is the Fire Management Officer for the Boulder County Sheriff's Office. You can read more from Jay on his blog "The North Star Foundation." All expressions are those of the author.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Food for Thought - Followership to Leadership

Better followers beget better leaders. ~ Barbara Kellerman

Better followers beget better leaders. ~ Barbara Kellerman

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