2 2019

by Michael DeGrosky

These days, here in the western U.S., we’re all about shared stewardship and cross-boundary management among good neighbors – each doing our part to implement the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy at the landscape scale. In other words, we’ve acknowledged that fire and forest health issues do not conform to geopolitical boundaries and agency jurisdictions. We seem ready to reflect this fact not only in our natural resource policy but also in our management.

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How to lead in times when we seek and need a cohesive strategy? Begin this cross-boundary work, Mike DeGrosky suggests, by first building a cohesive approach and strategy in your own organization and in your leadership style.

Without a doubt our work represents magnificent aspirations — coordinating efforts across ownerships and jurisdictions, sharing burdens, working collaboratively, and targeting our work into the most fire-prone landscapes. Yet these aspirations are also a tremendously practical philosophy for responding to our most pressing natural resource issues. It’s an exciting and challenging time to be working in fire and natural resources with a newfound sense of purpose.

However, those of us who’ve engaged in collaborative work know that it can be tough. Having observed efforts to increase the pace and scale of restoration forestry both up-close and from afar for many years, I must say that achieving the promise of cross-boundary collaboration is a challenging game-changer for most agencies and organizations in this arena. Whether boundaries are geographic, organizational or both, this approach often requires new thinking, new organizational structures, new resources, and a changed mindset, all of which can confound the most agile of organizations.

Useful cross-boundary work can also require intense cooperation between different parts of the same organization, and between people whose previous partnership with one another has been limited or nonexistent. The speed bumps can be many, and to the surprise of many a leader aiming to foster this model, internal hurdles can prove as high as those between agencies. That’s why, since the inception of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy in 2009 I’ve observed (and this has become a mantra for me), that organizations cannot be cohesive externally without first being cohesive internally. With new and turbulent challenges comes the need for adaptive, enabling leadership — an emerging paradigm that I’ve written about in these pages before. As I reflect on my experience working with leaders in pursuit of useful cross-boundary work at a meaningful scale, I see the following challenges and offer some leadership advice.

We resist change.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2012, Rosabeth Moss Kanter chair and director of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, identified ten common and predictable reasons why change catalyzes resistance. Moss Kanter contends that “….the best tool for leaders of change is to understand the predictable, universal sources of resistance in each situation and then strategize around them.” While I briefly touch on some of Kanter’s observations and proposed solutions in this column I strongly encourage Wildfire readers to read her excellent article at https://hbr.org/2012/09/ten-reasons-people-resist-chang. In which she explores how we fear losing autonomy and control over our work. We crave free will and self-determination. So allow those who are affected by a change to make choices. Give them ownership by inviting them into the planning.

We fear uncertainty.

When we can’t see what’s coming or where we’re going, we resist. Even people who want something different don’t want things to be too much different. If a leader is sending signals that too much (or everything) is going to change people naturally resist. Both management science and practical experience supports the idea that visionary leadership builds support for, and blunts resistance to, organizational change by describing a better and more appealing future. However, I recently read a fascinating research article by Merlijn Venus, Daan Stam, and Daan van Knippenberg. They suggest that to get people to embrace change, leaders must emphasize what will stay the same. This information helps overcome fears that the organization will no longer be the organization they value and with which they identify. Wildfire readers can also read this excellent article at https://hbr.org/2018/08/research-to-get-people-to-embrace-change-emphasize-what-will-stay-the-same.

Those involved in crafting the previous course become defensive.

I feel safe in saying that everyone fears the perception that they worked hard, applied their knowledge and skills and came up short. Effective leaders help people in this situation let go, maintain their dignity, and move on by acknowledging and commending past efforts and achievements. Leaders make clear that additional change is needed not because the previous strategy was inadequate, but because the operating environment has changed.

Change can cause us to feel inadequate.

When impacted by a significant change in the workplace we worry that our skill set may no longer be needed, and can become concerned about our ability to achieve what’s expected of us. In my experience, smart leaders invest time and effort in providing information, education, training, mentoring, support, and reassurance. They help people understand the desired outcome, the process, and the timetable for completion. They don’t expect too much, too soon, recognizing that people will naturally move toward the desired future state at variable speeds and by different routes reflecting individual readiness and personality.

Empathy forms the basis of trusting relationships.

Leaders who face resistance to change help their people, their organization and themselves by employing empathy and compassion. Let’s face it, no leader likes opposition. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to divide people into cooperative and uncooperative camps. However, we need to understand that people are stressed when faced with uncertainty. In my experience, the most effective leaders avoid the impulse to isolate and control those who resist. They keep them focused on accomplishing the desired future state while serving and benefitting all employees. They ask people what they need, talk with them one-on-one, let them say what’s on their mind, and put themselves in their shoes. Leading with understanding and compassion also means providing extra guidance, fostering flexibility, focusing on priorities, and reducing distractions.

Bureaucratic organizations rely on rules and hierarchy that can stifle important innovation and creative problem-solving.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: in today’s turbulent environment, leaders must get over the idea that they can direct complex organizations or control future outcomes in complex situations in traditional ways. Instead, I recommend focusing on fostering conditions that allow new organizational structures to emerge and people to innovate on the fly. According to the best and most current research I’ve seen, enabling individuals and groups to work adaptably requires a leader to foster network development and to role-model the value of networks that catalyze innovation — to encouraging others to innovate rather than doing all the innovating themselves, to interpret emerging events rather than trying to direct them, and to manage peoples’ communication rather than the people themselves.

Leaders who succeed in chaotic environments know that they can produce remarkably effective solutions when they involve people in crafting direction and solutions to challenges. I’m influenced by research conducted by Mary Uhl-Bien and Russ Marion who posit that in bureaucratic organizations, leaders provide the highest value when they engage in “enabling leadership.” I think of this as the leader serving as the linking pin between the organization’s formal, administrative leadership and its informal, emergent leadership. Uhl-Bien and Marion contend that when leaders provide this interface, new, innovative, adaptive concepts and ideas arise from the organization.

The promise of collaborative, cross-boundary work makes this an exciting time to be working in fire and natural resources. Many of us find ourselves animated with a new sense of purpose. Successful leaders will be those who strive to understand the universal reasons people resist change, involve others in crafting direction and solutions rather than trying to solve problems alone, and lead with empathy and compassion.


Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Division of Forestry. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for ten years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.