december 2017

2017 was a tough fire season in my neck of the woods. While we didn’t have all that many fires, conditions were such that we set records for both acreage and cost. Very large and long duration fires were common. Tragically, in our geographic area, we lost two firefighters in separate accidents on the same National Forest. We ran short on key resources and, consequently, worked some people too hard. While extreme fire danger came on early and suddenly, fire season also came to a halt earlier than expected and almost as suddenly as it started.

Anyone who’s been around any length of time knows that big seasons mean big experiences, including big wins and even bigger challenges. A tough season exposes the cracks in our organizations, policies, procedures, and relationships; but they also demonstrate our resilience. A difficult season, like the one we just came through, stresses people and wears them down and, consequently, we can see one another at our worst.

Conversely, like other shared experiences, working closely together throughout a challenging fire season can build trust between people and both forge new relationships and strengthen existing ones. The experiences of a difficult fire season can either damage an organization, or present an opportunity for learning and growth, depending on how the organization’s leaders encourage people to think about and process their experiences. So how might an effective leader assure that people and their organization receive value from a tough season?

First, aspiring leaders must remember the essential link between organizational leadership and organizational learning. Continuous learning is important to organizational effectiveness and, therefore, mission-critical not, what we can mistakenly see as, a distraction from “real work.” Adopt continuous learning as a personal leadership value. Leaders promote learning in their organizations by modeling. In other words, they learn on a personal level develop their critical thinking skills and promote critical thinking on their team. Critical thinking is important because, after the tough season, we are trying to cope, stay productive, and act responsibly.

Organizations succeed because people at all organizational levels share information and learn from experience. Leaders advance learning by helping others in their units learn.

The leaders I see doing this effectively by creating opportunities for learning and leading the learning personally if necessary. However, remember that different people mean different experiences and that not everyone learns in the same way. Meet people where they are at.

Focus on learning after doing. Learning after doing improves performance by preventing recurrent mistakes and repeating successes. The after-action-review (AAR) provides us with a powerful tool for learning after doing. An AAR consists of a team having a disciplined conversation, framed in the comparison of intended vs. actual results; a process that uses reflection on past shared work to shape the team members’ future actions.

However, if you really want to turbo-charge your learning, treat the AAR as part of a continuous cycle including communicating intent, planning, preparing, taking action, reviewing, and following through to inform future intent and planning. But, most importantly, make sure that lessons learned turn into action plans and action plans turn into action. As leaders, we must consider the relationship between learning and leadership, because they are inextricably linked. Increasingly leaders, in addition to leading their organization will lead the learning within that organization as one of their fundamental responsibilities.

Like I said, big seasons mean big challenges and expose the cracks in our organizations, our policies, our procedures, and our relationships. Stress and fatigue wear both people and organizations down and, consequently, relationships get tested. So, we can find ourselves at the end of a big season facing some pretty difficult tests of the resilience of our relationships, both internal and interagency.

When that happens, we must have both the courage and the patience to discuss sensitive topics that no one really wants to discuss openly and directly. I realize that people think discussing the undiscussable sounds nuts, a way of stirring conflict, exposing themselves to ridicule, risking their status. However, over time, I’ve learned two things about learning from experience, and I’ve learned both the hard way. First, avoiding a difficult discussion, a way of avoiding conflict, often fails to prevent conflict and often makes it worse. Certainly we will, in good judgement, choose to let some subjects lie. However, more often than not, we’ll all be better off if we overcome the reluctance and just get the tough issues out on the table; but doing so takes acts of leadership. I’ve also learned that, when it comes to learning after doing, there is no learning without candor. Organizations improve their performance when people communicate upward with honesty, challenge assumptions openly, and share information willingly.

However, discussing the undiscussable and learning together by being candid with one another isn’t easy. I’ve recently learned about a process that may help, the mutual learning approach pioneered by Roger Schwartz and his associates (, and I think that this approach can really help organizations put their post-fire season learning in high gear.

I encourage Wildfire readers to check it out but, in the meantime, consider the five assumptions and the eight behaviors of the approach, and how they might improve you, as an effective leader, can assure that their people and their organization receive value from a tough season.

The Mutual Learning assumptions

  • I have information and so do other people
  • People may disagree with me and still have pure motives
  • I may be contributing to the problem
  • Each of us sees things others don’t
  • Differences are opportunities for learning

Mutual Learning behaviors

  • State views and ask genuine questions
  • Share all relevant information
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
  • Explain reasoning and intent
  • Focus on interests, not positions
  • Test assumptions and inferences
  • Jointly design next steps
  • Discuss undiscussable issues

The experiences of a difficult fire season can either damage an organization, or present an opportunity for learning and growth, depending on how the organization’s leaders encourage people to think about and process their experiences. I hope that I’ve shared some ideas that might help you, as an effective leader, assure that your organization and its people receive value from a tough season.

Michael DeGrosky


Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire and Aviation Management Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Division of Forestry, and 2016 Adjunct Instructor of the Year for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Fort Hays State University, where he taught for the Department of Leadership Studies for 10 years.