june 2017

It’s been termed “permanent whitewater.” That’s what author and internationally recognized organizational change and development expert, Dr. Peter Vaill, describes the complex systems, dynamic environments, and turbulent conditions that leaders face today: the tumble-and-turmoil challenge of “permanent whitewater.”

With political discord rampant, confidence in public institutions at an all-time low, workforces aging, budgets thin, and priorities shifting, one could argue that the already rough waters in public wildland fire agencies are only getting rougher. Frankly, anyone planning on leading and managing in our agencies should plan on running Class 5 rapids for the foreseeable future. Vaill and others who think like him, me included, believe that negotiating permanent whitewater requires a different leadership approach than we traditionally exercised in the more stable operating environments and organizations of the past.

Our leaders will face challenges they have not faced before — for which they have not been tested — that may exceed the knowledge, skill and abilities they have previously applied. So how does one successfully lead through this uncertainty?

Leaders in public fire agencies must build and maintain a culture of readiness, resilience, and commitment. I recently reviewed a set of articles by influential writers about leading through uncertainty, and concluded that, to succeed in the uncertain times ahead, nine lessons learned will serve our leaders well.

  1. Lead with flexibility and adaptability. Get proficient and help others get proficient at using a wide variety of behaviors that can produce successful outcomes in a range of situations. Be ready to respond confidently and decisively to both emerging threats and emerging opportunities. Review and evaluate actions and decisions frequently and make course corrections as often as necessary. Do not fear bad news or disconfirming information, but use it as fuel to learn, grow, and improve. Get over the idea that leaders can direct complex organizations in complex situations in traditional ways or control future outcomes. Instead, focus on fostering conditions that allow new organizational structures to emerge and people to innovate on the fly. To enable individuals and groups to work adaptably and flexibly, organizational researchers contend that leaders should foster network development, become a role model that catalyzes networks, use conflict and uncertainty to disrupt existing patterns, encourage innovation rather than innovating themselves, interpret emerging events rather than trying to direct them, and manage peoples’ communication rather than managing people.
  2. Get out there, make personal connections, and show your leadership presence. Maintaining existing personal connections and establishing new ones proves critically important when leading people in challenging times. If you want to lead, you need to show up, but once you show up, you need to engage people and keep engaging them. If there ever was a time to be present with your people, this is it. Remember, small gestures like a personal acknowledgement or taking time for a few words reassure people and can make a permanent, positive impression that builds commitment. The people who want and need your leadership want to see your eyes, sit down near you, and benefit from your complete communication; most of which you convey non-verbally. People always value interaction and communication with their leaders, and this proves particularly true in chaotic times. People want to know that their leaders remain committed, care about the people in the organization, and value their employees’ expertise and feedback. And remember, uncertain times present opportunities to solidify your leadership by demonstrably serving others.
  3. Collaborate – Involve everyone in solving problems. Get people engaged and empower them to help solve the organization’s problems. During tough times, people tend to seek out seasoned, safe, conventional leaders to solve problems that they cannot solve themselves. However, those traditional leaders often fall back on their own knowledge, skills, and abilities that served them well in the past. Unfortunately, in today’s turbulent environments, those solutions to past problems often prove inadequate for the modern-day challenge at hand and fail to engage collective resources that could solve the problem with creativity and innovation. Encourage participation, at least in the implementation of change. While people may not have much control over whether change needs to occur, they should be heavily involved in how it will occur and making it happen. Adaptive, flexible leaders — the kind that succeed in chaotic environments — know that they can produce remarkably effective solutions when they involve people in crafting solutions to the organization’s setbacks rather than trying to solve problems by themselves.
  4. Do not feed the strain and anxiety people are feeling; instead use the tension to drive learning and development. Remember, you cannot control the circumstances, but you can control your response to them; and how you respond influences how others respond. Remain deeply aware of your emotional and social impact. I have observed that most people in assigned leadership roles underestimate the influence they have on other people and the climate of the organization. We are human, our emotions are part of the human condition, and it is too much to ask for leaders to remain unemotional in tough times. However, leaders set the tone and establish the workplace climate. So leaders must, to the best of their ability, regulate their own behavior; developing and maintaining awareness of their actions and how they come across to others. Effective leaders maintain an intense awareness of their emotions, their behaviors, how people interpret their behavior, and how they affect the attitudes and morale of those they lead. Create a climate in which people see how they may adapt, show their resilience, and see the path forward.
  5. Make decisions. Uncertain times can cause leaders to become very cautious, making decisions that seem only a sure bet or avoiding decision-making altogether. However, in reality, what tough times really demand is the ability to make quick, effective decisions, which can be done by deferring to expertise and drawing on the insight of the people closest to, and most knowledgeable of, the problem at hand. Convey a sense of urgency and encourage action. Organizational change expert John Kotter contends that people who share a sense of urgency remain alert and responsive, act on change initiatives, and focus their time and priorities on the tasks of those initiatives. Combating complacency and establishing a sense of urgency requires leaders to act boldly and decisively, resolving to move the organization in some direction without hesitation.
  6. Focus, focus, focus: so that you navigate disruptions as strategically as possible. Do not spend your attention or energy, or allow your people to spend their attention and energy, on factors beyond your control or theirs. Doing so wastes time, distracts people from what is important, and drags morale down. Get people together and revisit your mission, vision, and core values. It is precisely in times like these those elements of strategy prove invaluable as guideposts. If organizational upheaval makes pursuing your strategic vision difficult, pull the key stakeholders together and adjust your vision to reflect the changed circumstances. Separate the essential from the more expendable, concentrate on the mission-critical, and innovate in order to achieve the most mission-critical aspects of your vision.
  7. Communicate honestly, directly, frequently, and with clarity. In tough times, people want, and need, to know what is going on. Be transparent and share whatever information you can. Give honest answers. If someone asks for information that is confidential or you are not authorized to talk about, be honest and tell them why you cannot answer. Pay close attention to people, ask lots of questions, and listen to people. Their answers will help your organization power through tough situations. In learning organizations, leaders invite input from others in their discussions, actively question employees, and listen to them, all in order to prompt dialogue and debate. When a leader asks the right kinds of questions, listens to the answers, uses the information they gain to make better decisions, and communicates their decision with clarity, people in the organization feel confident in their ability to contribute to the organization’s learning and improvement.
  8. Lead with empathy and compassion. When faced with uncertainty, people can feel overcome, anxious, and distracted. To help people stay focused despite their angst, effective leaders strive to strike an effective balance between knowing how they can serve and benefit their employees while keeping them on task and accomplishing meaningful work. Ask people what they need, talk with people one-on-one and let them tell you how they feel and what’s on their mind. Have empathy; put yourself in their shoes and work to understand what they think and feel. You do not have to agree, or even feel what they are feeling, but strive to understand, because your empathy forms the basis of trusting relationships. Be ready to provide extra guidance; help people to work more flexibly, focus on priorities, and reduce distractions.
  9. Take care of yourself. You will support your team and organization if you manage your own stress and health. You do no one any good if you are home sick, in the hospital, incapacitated, or simply working below your capacity. Plus, research by the Center for Creative Leadership showed strong linkage between effective leadership and regular exercise, showing that co-workers rated executives who exercised significantly higher on their leadership than those who do not. And of course, regular exercise improves one’s energy, stamina and general health.

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.