Friday, March 20, 2015

How to Lead from a Cubicle (and other odd places)

Wildland Firefighter Memorial
Wildland Firefighter Memorial at NIFC in Boise, ID
One of my favorite leadership quotes goes something like “if you think you’re leading but no one is following, you’re just going for a walk.” While it’s got that great punchy character that gets people’s attention, and it’s indeed true in a lot of situations, it doesn’t apply to every situation. As I’m sure many of you know, there’s more to being a leader than just being in the front of the pack, and it’s likely that most of us will be in a situation at some point in our careers where we don’t have anyone following us in the traditional sense.

In my life, I’ve recently made a career move that puts me in a situation where I’m not exactly a leader, but not exactly a follower either. I went from being the assistant supervisor on a ten-person crew to a position where I work as a member of a three-person module where we’re more peers than anything else. I went from working in an environment where there were lots of “lead from the front” opportunities to one where leadership is definitely more subtle. I spend a lot of my time in a cubicle, in the winter and shoulder seasons at least, and it seems when I do make it to the field, I’m doing my own thing, collecting data and being a kind of freelance Field Observer (FOBS) rather than leading a crew or squad. I do plan on continuing to do fire in the traditional sense, taking assignments here and there to stay current and up to speed, but it’s not my primary job these days. It’s not a unique situation by any means, as on every district, forest, field office, or park there are fire effects folks, fuels technicians, and various prevention and patrol people that don’t fit into a traditional leadership role.

To my mind, this is where the idea of leadership as a more holistic concept comes in. Look at the values and principles championed by the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program for example… it’s not all about others. In fact, there are several principles of leadership that are more self-oriented, like being proficient at your job, or seeking self improvement. Being in that in-between place between follower and leader can actually be a great opportunity to do some personal growth.

In my case this is especially true, as I’ve challenged myself to not grow stagnant as a leader, but to find other ways to contribute. Sure, I’m not leading people in the traditional sense, and it probably looks like I’m out for a walk more often than not, but I’m learning that being a leader within a community like wildland fire and aviation means more than just leading the boots on the ground. I’ve taken on some additional responsibilities, like assisting the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program with their social media and reading programs. I’ve taken the time to put myself through some training I never had the opportunity to pursue before, like accident investigation and risk management. I’m making new professional connections, and gaining new perspective on leadership as a result of seeing and doing things in a way I really hadn’t before.

In a funny way, in stepping away from a stereotypical leadership role I’ve realized that there’s much more to being a leader than just having followers. In fact, you can have just as much, if not more influence by being a follower, so to speak. When you don’t have position power, you’re forced to think more about what you’re trying to do, and why, and have better justification for your actions than you would otherwise. I think that, far from being a negative thing, being a follower and leading via influence is just as important as being a positional leader. Everyone has a boss after all, even if you are in a leadership position you’ll still have peers, and leaders above you.

So if you’re like me, and not in a traditional leadership role, I challenge you to take a look at your situation and find opportunities to grow as a leader, and as a person. Look for ways to support those around you, ways to enable your peers, and those around you, to be better at what they do. As I see it, being outside, being a follower, you can wield as much, if not more influence than you could before, and the opportunities are endless… Sometimes taking leadership actions, looking out for your coworkers and peers, can create a chain reaction of leadership good vibes.

If you find yourself making a transition from leader to follower like I have, treat it as an opportunity to approach familiar problems from new angles, or even tackle new challenges. Go forth and do good things, and don’t stop being a student of fire, and leadership.

Until next time…

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


Amanda Lucas-Rice said...

I completely agree and I am glad you're speak up about it. It took me several years to come to the same realization ...many years of feeling as if I wasn't part of a "team" anymore until I realized that I was an intragrel support piece to a bunch of teams .... A larger whole and my talent of filling the holes and graps made the larger whole stronger. I think the folks in this situation just don't get the visual or immediate gratification to connect the work they do to the outcomes... I think is likely harder on folks that spent many years working in a crew dynamic to transition too.

Pam McDonald said...

Thanks for your comment, Amanda. I have forwarded it on to Justin. Keep "filling the holes and gaps." Your ability to make the larger whole is greatly appreciated! ~ Pam