Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Takeaways From L-580 – Leadership is Action, Gettysburg Staff Ride by BLM Fire Operations Group

On October 26, 2015, the BLM Fire Operations Group (FOG) attended a fall delivery of the L-580 Leadership is Action Gettysburg Staff Ride at the historic battlefield in Gettysburg, PA. The L-580 course’s target group includes senior-level leaders and decision makers and Incident Management Team members. The Gettysburg delivery of L-580 spends two days evaluating and examining the decisions, actions and leadership styles of key commanders of the 1863 battle which drastically influenced the outcome of the American Civil War.

About Staff Rides
Staff Rides have been utilized by the U.S. Military for decades as an instructional method to teach leadership skills. A true staff ride consists of three distinct phases: 1) a systematic Preliminary Study of a selected fire or other emergency operation, 2) an extensive Field Study to the actual site(s) associated with the incident, 3) an opportunity for Integration of the lessons derived from the study and visit.
The FOG L-580 Group discussing the Confederate Army position and vantage from Seminary Ridge. (Photo by Steve Shaw)
For the Gettysburg Staff Ride, the book Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and multiple academic articles were assigned as pre-work. In addition to describing the human elements of leadership at all levels in a large organization, this gripping novel demonstrates the impact leadership successes and failures can have on history (Note – the Killer Angels is in the NWCG Leadership Development Professional Reading Program Library). The thorough student preparation required prior to arriving at the battlefield helps participants to be familiar with the important events during the battle so more time can be dedicated to evaluating the decisions of the leaders involved and the human factors which influenced these decisions.

For the field study portion of the L-580 Gettysburg Staff Ride, students follow the events of the battle in chronological order, from initial troop engagement (Initial Attack), to emerging incident (Type 3 Incident) to a full scale battle of armies (Type 1 Incident). Being on the actual ground provides perspective on the influence of topography and the challenge of troop maneuver over a large geographic area (concepts that are very relevant to wildland firefighting and fire management).

FOG Takeaways from the L-580 Gettysburg Staff Ride

The following FOG takeaways from L-580 were derived from the integration dinner at the conclusion of the course:
  • Listen to your competent subordinate commanders and empower them to make decisions, for they are closest to the point of friction. This concept was highly evident when examining the actions of Major General Buford, "Who with the first inspiration of a cavalry officer selected this battlefield", the high ground, to the Union Army's advantage throughout the battle...” (as inscribed on the Buford Monument at Gettysburg). Wildland fire leaders who provide clear leader’s intent and allow skilled firefighters to accomplish the end state empower independent decisions to be made when conditions change. This concept can easily be applied to our initial attack ICs, engine captains, hotshot superintendents, smokejumper squad leaders, helitack foreman, and fire operations supervisors.
Major General John Buford’s monument on McPherson Ridge. (Photo credit: Paul Hohn)
Major General John Buford’s monument on McPherson Ridge. (Photo credit: Paul Hohn)
  • "General, I do this under protest." These words, uttered by Major General Hood to his superior, Lieutenant General Longstreet, demonstrates the difficult position many of our mid-level leaders face in wildland fire when a decision is unpopular, or perhaps unwise. There is a balance between supporting our leaders and our own ideals, as well as an appropriate way to voice dissent to a leader's decision. 
  • Without the common soldier, executing the tactics of the battle strategy, there would be no victory for any commander. Doing your job, and doing it well, is important in any organization, especially in wildland fire. We cannot all be infamous "Generals". 
  • The 51,000 casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg is a reminder of the importance every life holds. As leaders in wildland fire we have an awesome and daunting responsibility to care for the well-being of all those we lead. Our firefighters are irreplaceable; they are immensely important to their families and loved ones. All our decisions as leaders in wildland fire should be anchored in our responsibilities to provide for the well-being of those we lead. 
  • During the Battle of Gettysburg, many of the core commanders did not agree and/or had conflicting ideas as to what should occur. Their belief in the mission and their commanders allowed them to work towards what they believed in; they did so while faced with the horrible consequence of losing human lives. Similarly, in wildland fire there are several challenges we face on a daily basis. It is important to realize that we don't always agree but some conflict and disagreement is healthy. As long as we work towards a common goal, work through our differing opinions, and believe in our mission, amazing things can be accomplished.
General Robert E. Lee Monument on Seminary Ridge at sunrise. (Photo by Paul Hohn)
  • One of the common themes throughout the staff ride was trust. Whether it was General Robert E Lee’s lack of confidence and trust in his subordinates, or General George Meade's reliance on his commanders - his former peers - for his decision-making, trust was very influential during the battle. Trust should be an important building block in all of our programs. Lack trust of can be disastrous. As leaders in wildland fire, we have been entrusted with the lives and futures of many young men and women. It is important that a high level of trust and empowerment is built into our organizations from the bottom up. By doing this, we enable our programs to surge forward into the future with confidence and positive results. 
  • During multiple instances in the Battle of Gettysburg subordinate leaders either did or did not act when opportunities presented themselves. These tactical reactions made huge impacts to the outcome of the battle. Similarly, in wildland fire we need to make the most of the "scraps of time" and recognize when the "windows of opportunity are open." Effective leaders work hard and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Our leaders need to be resilient enough to be able to capitalize on those windows of opportunity that present themselves during an incident and in fire management. Unlike our larger agencies, the fire community is extremely good at adapting quickly. 
  • As leaders in wildland fire, it is important to build a trust climate with our operators in the field. As with battlefield commanders, wildland fire managers rely on our field operators to provide the information needed to make good strategic decisions. 
  • It is humbling to consider the selfless sacrifice thousands of soldiers in the Battle of Gettysburg were willing to bear because of their sense of duty to a cause. Likewise in wildland fire, we should not take lightly the sacrifice our firefighters endure, nor their sense of duty. All leaders in wildland fire are responsible to ensure our firefighters’ sacrifices are commensurate with the values we strive to protect. 
L-580 participants walking to the start of Picket’s Charge at sunrise. (Photo by Paul Hohn)
The FOG is an institution in the BLM Fire organization which prides itself in being a highly functional, agile, and responsive team which shows initiative to provide solutions to issues impacting the members of the fire organization closest to the ground. Participation in this training served as an excellent team building experience for the FOG, improving rapport and fostering an esprit de corps among the FOG's members. The FOG will apply the lessons learned from L-580 as we continue to face challenging leadership decisions in wildland fire. Participating in this training as a group has strengthened the FOG, and we highly encourage other leadership groups in the fire community to consider attending.
Thanks to Paul Hohn, WY BLM Asst. State FMO, for this submission. All thoughts are those of the contributors.

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