june 2014

At the Large Wildland Fires conference, participants will explore the big questions confronting fire researchers, managers, and policymakers. Those big questions include the debate over whether current and future large wildfires represent unwanted and unnatural events that cause great ecological and economic harm — or opportunities to restore ecosystems and the natural role of fire and improve both forest and human community resilience in the face of climate change.

In the U.S., the 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR) advanced, among other things, new core strategies for reinforcing fire management’s role in ecosystem sustainability by developing flexible and agile strategic management response capabilities; by reinforcing the concept of fire-adapted human communities; by realigning fire governance, particularly roles and responsibilities in the wildland urban interface; by developing an integrated fuels management approach; and by tying fuels treatment investments more closely to land stewardship objectives. The 2009 QFR envisioned multi-jurisdictional landscape scale efforts; new public outreach content, mediums and platforms; realigned capabilities; capital asset modernization; as well as greater expectations about the collaborative efforts of federal, tribal, state, and local agencies as well as contractors.

The QFR tiers to the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which endeavors to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; to live with, as a nation, wildland fire; and address the nation’s wildfire problems by focusing on restoration and maintenance of landscapes, fire adapted communities, and response to fire. Yet, in our hyper-politicized society, critics have decried recent federal fire policy directives as a retreat to the 10 a.m. policy of the mid-20th Century, and at odds with the priorities of 21st Century fire management described in both the QFR and the Cohesive Strategy.

Whether the QFR and Cohesive Strategy articulate a realistic and implementable national fire policy and strategy, I cannot say. However, I do know one thing, the QFR and Cohesive Strategy describe an enormous amount of institutional change; and profound change requires highly effective leadership.

The primary purpose of leadership is to make change, the action of turning into or becoming something different from before. Organizations successfully navigate change when leaders refuse to accept, and instead challenge, the status quo; provide a vision for what the organization ought to be in the future; initiate movement toward the vision; and work to sustain the change. That’s easy to say, but hard to do; particularly when talking about the deep, transformational changes envisioned in the QFR and the Cohesive Strategy.

Many authors, both academic and popular, have written on leadership and change. Much of that writing could lead one to believe that organizational change occurs in an orderly and methodical fashion. However, people who have experienced profound, transformational change would more likely describe their experience as being very messy, unpredictable and confusing. Most organizational changes involve many wrong turns and missed opportunities. In a real-life example, when elected mayor of Oakland in 1998, California Governor Jerry Brown said, “Real change isn’t so easy. It’s a word that rolls off one’s lips, but any time you have real change there’s some pain, there’s tension, there’s adjustment, there’s some wrenching going on.”

My favorite thinker on the subject of strategic change is John Kotter, world-renowned expert on leadership, formerly of the Harvard Business School, and author of several excellent books on leading change. Citing 30 years of research, Kotter contends that 70% of all major change efforts end in failure; and my consulting experience correlates with Kotter’s assertion. I encourage the would-be change agents with whom I work, to pay careful attention to eight steps that Kotter maintains will, when diligently applied, help them avoid failure and improve their chance of success when leading change.

Kotter‘s advice? Leaders must:

(1) Establish a sense of urgency. Be clear about the reason for change. Explain why people need to change, create a sense of urgency, and use facts to show why the environment demands change.

(2) Create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition. Put together a group with enough power to lead the change. Have enough key players involved to assure that the effort cannot be blocked. Have the right expertise, credibility, and leadership.

(3) Develop a change vision. Describe a desired future state and develop strategies to achieve that vision. Focus on moving towards something (a desired future for the organization) rather than departing from the past.

(4) Communicate the vision and get people to buy-in. Assure that as many people as possible understand and accept both the vision and the strategy for achieving the vision. Identify clear channels of communication. Let people know where they can go to ask questions, get information, and vent their frustrations.

(5) Empower broad-based action. Remove obstacles, change systems and structures as necessary, encourage innovation. Encourage participation, at least in the implementation of the change. While people may not have much control over whether change needs to occur, they should be heavily involved in how it will occur.

(6) Generate short-term wins. Plan visible achievements, follow-through to make those achievements happen, recognize and reward involved personnel.

(7) Never let up. Change systems, structures, and policies that do not advance your change strategy. Hire, develop, promote and support employees who can implement the strategy. Keep people engaged and the change process invigorated; with new projects, objectives, themes, and people to serve as change agents.

(8) Incorporate changes into the organization’s culture. Help people make connections between new behaviors and the organization’s success. Foster both leadership development and leadership succession that enables the ongoing sustainability of the change strategy.

In the U.S., the QFR and the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy describe an enormous amount of institutional change. With the final phase of the Cohesive Strategy released in April, and as we begin the 2014 Quadrennial Fire Review, it’s a good time to remember that profound change demands highly effective leadership. We are changing, and a highly effective leader must understand change and what enables change efforts to succeed.


Key Points

• In the U.S., the QFR and the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy describe an enormous amount of institutional change.

• The primary purpose of leadership is to make change —the action of turning into or becoming something different from before — happen.

• Profound change demands highly effective leadership and a highly effective leader must understand change and what enables change efforts to succeed.

• A majority of major change efforts end in failure. To succeed, establish a vision, urgency, and short-term wins.


About the author

Mike DeGrosky is chief executive officer of the Guidance Group, a consulting organization specializing in the human and organizational aspects of the fire service, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University. Follow him on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.