Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Progress Is Inevitable

Be Change Become
(Image by John Hain from Pixabay)

"Women astronauts. What a ridiculous idea." - 

Recently I asked our readers the following question: "As a leader, what do you have control over?" The most popular response was, "Yourself." Not a single person mentioned time or change. Wouldn't it be handy if we could control time, especially with regard to bringing about change.

There is yet to be a generation that hasn't struggled with the glacial speed of change. Being a change agent is hard business. Many times change agents never see the "fruits of their labor." In fact, some may never know they had any influence at all. Sometimes it all depends on our perspective.
Let's talk about diversity and inclusion for a minute. This is NOT a new topic; the battle has been "fought" many times over. Now don't get me wrong. I am all for diversity and inclusion. The fact that we even have to have the conversation baffles me. But we do. Every generation does. Humans are humans. Those with the power rule while the minority struggles to regain their footing. It is what we humans do. The quest for power is nothing society hasn't seen nor will fail to see in the future. 

When we talk about leadership, we talk about influence—not control. We talk about the difference we can make and about the change we can affect. We rarely talk about how long it takes to bring about change. Sometimes all we can do is be and wait for an opportunity to present itself and jump into action. Unfortunately, there are times when we may never see an opportunity to institute change or the full result of our actions. The most important thing we can do is have faith that change will happen...eventually...or that we have influenced others to further the cause.

Nothing speaks more to this than the story of the Mercury Project (NASA's testing and training of 159 men, 7 of whom would pass) and Mercury 13 (private testing of  25 females, 13 of whom would pass)—all testing conducted by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace. What began as a program for men by the government and NASA became a secret testing of women for the same roles. Deep prejudice about a woman's place in what was deemed a male-only profession resulted in the United States failing to put the first woman into space. You see NASA and President Johnson stopped the testing of women and cancelled the program before Dr. Lovelace could complete his studies with the women.

Dr. Lovelace saw something that NASA didn't. He saw potential. He saw possibility—the possibility that women might be a better fit for some aspects of space travel and men might be fit for other aspects. He was willing to test women, even if secretly, to prove his theory. He wasn't afraid of the results. He was concerned with the answer. There was no threat. There was no fear. What did NASA or President Johnson have to fear?

Society's acceptance of woman in historically male roles is a result of the influence of those women and men who pioneered a change effort and had faith that what they were "fighting" for would make a difference...some day. They chose the difficult right over the easy wrong.

The story of women in the wildland fire service is a similar story. Many a female fire professional has advanced the change effort. We have our female champions and male advocates. Progress is inevitable. Even though it seems like we might be searching for the Holy Grail, remember progress is inevitable.

I challenge all members of the wildland fire service to have a little faith. Although things seem dark, how about changing your perspective ever so slightly? All things come from a beginning. We may very well be so distracted by the noise that we cannot sense the seeds of change growing under our feet. Seeds that were planted and sowed by those that came before us. Seedlings we have a duty to nurture should they align with our values of duty, respect, and integrity.

The Mercury 13 astronauts knew they couldn't fail or the effort would die or at least be placed in the archives of history for someone to find and possibly reignite. Those original 13 thought they would be the first women into space. Unfortunately, that honor would go to Valentina Tereshkova (USSR). Sally Ride would become the first U.S. woman in space. Peggy Wilson would become the first female Space Station commander. Six of the women from Mercury 13 were guests of  NASA and Eileen Collins as she became the first female Space Shuttle commander in July 1999. 

Wally Funk, member of the Mercury 13, is still pursuing her dream to go into space and has paid for her own seat on the first private space launch. Her story isn't finished and neither is ours. Read about Wally's story in Sean Giggy's article "She Could've Been the First Woman In Space."

"We can, person by person and leader by leader, turn cries of alienation, heartache, and fear into laughter and song of hope and renewal." - Brendon Burchard, high performance coach

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper

I challenge all students of leadership to study Mercury 13's story. Put aside your biases and realize this story has something everyone can learn. There was enough prejudice and disrespect on all sides. There is much more to the story and many leadership lessons to learn. Delve into the past to see how it might just influence the future. See how both men and women tried to control time and change and failed.
  • Read Martha Akmann's book The Mercury 13.
  • Watch the Netflix documentary Mercury 13.

A special shoutout for this blog goes to Nancy Taylor, Diversity Change Officer for the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior.

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. 

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