october 2017
Thoughts on Leadership_MT_Sunrise_12.jpeg
Finding the space to lead amid a record-busy fire season. PHOTO: Sunrise Fire, Montana.

by Mike DeGrosky

When the Wildfire editor assigned my column deadline to me in July, we were in just the second week of what had suddenly become a surprisingly active fire season here in Montana. I responded “Wow Ron, we’re running and gunning; I’ll do what I can.”

Ron offered me a carrot, “Maybe a reflection on a slice of life as you run and gun.” That was cool, and I thought that it would help me meet my looming deadline. Now, weeks later, I have finally gotten a couple evenings at home and a weekend day off, as we await yet another “wind event,” and the next round.

Things really have been pretty crazy here the last five weeks (during the most-busy August weeks). “Flash droughts,” I am told, turned what we thought would be a pretty benign fire season into one in which we’ve seen the state’s second largest fire ever, two fireline fatalities, multiple large fires, and unprecedented fire danger. People are confronting some big challenges and working lots of long days. As I travel our vast state, lending my support to our line officers, fire management officers, and incident commanders, I have taken note of several leadership lessons that jumped out at me during this challenging situation.

Lesson #1. Share an authentic calmness. In times of crisis, an authentic air of calm self-assurance can build people’s confidence. On the day the incident command team was assuming control of a major range fire, I pulled into the ICP to find the incident commander sitting on the tailgate of his pickup truck, cleaning his fingernails. At the time, I shared the perspective of many of our state’s citizens from the Governor on down, that this fire was an out-of-control disaster. After a few minutes of conversation, with a huge convection column in the background, I observed that the I.C. seemed awfully calm. His response was “If we can get some resources, we’ll be around this in a couple days.” I felt my anxiety about this fire begin to dissipate almost immediately. After a tough fight, they got around the fire in a few days and the team closed out in just over a week.

This experience reminded me of the importance of leadership presence, in this case, the I.C.’s ability to respond to an incident and calmly, without intimidation, show me that he was both competent as well as confident in his and his team’s abilities. He also quickly communicated, again without intimidation, that he was able to take charge of the incident and start resolving it. This encounter also reminded me of the difference between telling people what they want to hear and knowing what a person needs to know, and communicating that clearly and concisely.

Lesson #2. Let others do their job. Emergencies bring out the micro-managers and the empire builders. They’re like sharks when there’s blood in the water; they see opportunity and just keep showing up. While I’m sure they mean well, both micro-managers and empire builders get in the way and keep people who know how to do their job from getting things done. Effective leaders know when to take a step back and let people do their jobs.

Lesson #3. Connect with others. I’ve said it here before, and I’ll say it again: effective leaders get out there, make personal connections, and show their leadership presence. While making and maintaining personal connections always represents a leadership best practice, doing so proves critically important when leading people in challenging times. People who are working hard, giving it their all, and making sacrifices want those who aspire to lead them to notice, acknowledge their work, thank them, and generally remind them that someone gives a damn about what they are doing. If you want to lead, you need to show up, but once you show up, you need to engage with people, show that you care about them and support them, and help out any way you can.

Lesson #4. To communicate, give more than you receive. The tougher the times, the more we must communicate. Our most effective leaders assure that they communicate often, honestly, directly, and with clarity. Remember, when times are tough, people want, and need, to know what is going on. The most effective leaders I’ve observed lately communicate with brevity, clarity and simplicity. They also understand that they communicate with others for many reasons including gathering information and learning, to transfer ideas, to align expectations, inspire action, and to communicate their intent. The most effective leaders I’ve encountered also assure that they provide context in their communication; and that doing so proves essential to avoiding confusion, miscommunication, duplication of effort, and conflict.

I have had several encounters in which things would have gone so much more smoothly if someone had just started with “this is who I am, this is what I’m doing, here’s the problem I’m trying to solve, and this is why I’m calling you.” However, what I have noticed most is that effective leaders focus on adding value through their communication, by leaving something behind and contributing more than they receive.

Lesson #5. Manage your emotions. By now, Wildfire readers know that I believe that emotional intelligence is the secret sauce of effective leadership. The best leaders I encountered over the last few weeks were emotionally intelligent leaders. They know what emotions they are feeling and why. They can tell when their emotions are affecting their performance. However, most importantly, the best leaders could manage their feelings and emotions, stay composed, think clearly and stay focused under pressure or when feeling anxious. This enabled them to smoothly handle multiple demands, shifting priorities and rapid change.

My takeaway has been that the worse the situation, the greater the stress, the higher the operating tempo, the more important that emotional intelligence becomes and the more mindful of our effect on others we must be. Unfortunately, my observation has been that too many fire folk feel the opposite; that we don’t have time for that stuff when things are bad, when everyone’s stressed, when the operating tempo is high; and, therefore the rules are off. Big mistake; some of the biggest leadership drops I’ve seen this summer occurred because people were tired, stressed, task saturated or all of the above, and failed to consider the impact of their words and actions on others.

Lesson #6. See the Big Picture. When people are over-tired, over-stressed, and task saturated they begin to look at the world through a pinhole — seeing only their incident, their resource need, their situation — without understanding, acknowledging, or sometimes caring, how their actions affect the broader situation, the greater good, or even themselves. Once this happens, few people I’ve observed in action have the ability to pull themselves out of this cycle. Typically, someone else needs to get them to stop, take a step-back, and see the big picture. Doing so isn’t fun and can be messy. However, I’ve observed that a single person, a single team, or single unit can really muck things up for a lot of people and cause a lot of distracting, and therefore dangerous, conflict and confusion if their perspective becomes too inwardly focused due to fatigue, stress, or over-work. In the long run, asking a colleague to pull-up, as uncomfortable as that my be, will be doing them a favor.

Lesson #7. Take care of yourself. People need to take care of themselves and you might have to help (or force) them to do it. In crisis situations, key people can begin to feel like success hangs on them, that their personal presence and performance is essential to holding everything together. In reality, rarely is that true. In fact, lately I’ve seen both individual people and entire teams of people for whom the lights were on, but nobody was home because they were simply too fatigued or emotional and would not take some down time. It would have been better if they were off the playing field rather than there, trying to carry the world on their shoulders. We are finding that by assuring that our key people take a day or two off, not only do we manage our peoples’ fatigue, we create developmental opportunities for others who step in as agency administrator representatives, duty officers, and in other leadership capacities.

I hope that Wildfire readers find useful, this reflection on a few slice-of-life leadership lessons that occurred to me as we manage our way through a challenging fire season.


BIO: 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. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.