1 2019

As I write, here in the U.S. we are in the fifth week of a partial shutdown of our federal government, putting approximately 800,000 government employees out of work and turning the important winter work that fuels our fire management system on its head. Here in the Northern Rockies, the shutdown is disrupting critical training; important coordination meetings; projects on the ground; and, most importantly, the lives of employees who do not deserve to be used as political pawns.

And while there’s news the shutdown has just temporarily lifted (as of January 25), the threat remains of future shutdowns.

Our interagency training center is housed in a U.S. Forest Service facility, managed by a Forest Service employee, and staffed by course coordinators who work for federal agencies. Many instructors who serve on cadres and the majority of course participants at our training center come from five federal agencies. Consequently, with facilities, cadre, and participants unavailable due to the shutdown, we are canceling critical training sessions that will prove extremely difficult to re-schedule; including those that prepare our personnel to step into command and general staff roles on our incident management teams; the teams that manage our most complex incidents; and the teams that already face severe recruitment, retention, and succession problems. As the shutdown drags on, it will disrupt training, like annual safety refreshers, affecting our readiness for the coming fire year.

Due to the shutdown, we are forced to cancel coordination meetings, symposia and conferences that power the interagency system on which we have come to depend. We continue to hear reports of important hazardous fuels reduction projects, projects that protect communities and restore forest health, going dormant.

Most importantly, the shutdown is disrupting lives as federal personnel are either barred from doing their jobs or are working without compensation — something that, honestly, I cannot understand the legality of. Doing what I do, many of my friends and acquaintances work for federal natural resource agencies, both in and out of fire. Having missed multiple paychecks, I have friends who talk of dipping heavily into their savings in order to pay the bills; and most of my friends are mid-career or beyond, with higher level jobs and salaries. I think every day about all the early career, administrative support, and operational people I know, people who likely do not have the financial reserves of some of my closer friends. How will they fare if they miss a third or fourth paycheck?

I have been around for other government shutdowns, but never before, have I heard so many seasoned federal employees say they are seeking employment elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, I encounter federal employees who are emotionally and psychologically struggling with, not only the immediate personal financial impacts of the shutdown, but their forced inability to carry out their mission and serve both their citizens and the people they lead.

Leadership when we’re shut down …

Leading well in this situation can look daunting, particularly when the shutdown seems so simultaneously cynical, ineffective, and largely pointless. Leadership in a situation like this can prove particularly challenging when, barred from work, it’s tough to even know how people are doing and what they may need. But these sorts of situations don’t just occur during shutdowns. Think of those busy fire seasons when no one’s in their offices or duty stations for weeks. So, what’s a leader to do? For my brothers and sisters wildland fire organizations, I have five suggestions.

  1. Reach out. Get in touch. Pick up the phone. Ask people how they are doing. Let them know you miss seeing them every day. Get together for coffee. Maintain the social fabric that work and co-workers provide for people.
  2. Build and maintain trust. By focusing on the importance of understanding and supporting one another, showing compassion and support, and communicating, leaders demonstrate character and build trust. Study after study has shown that trust may represent the single biggest predictor of both effective leadership and employee satisfaction. We know that people find it much easier to trust a leader who treats them individually, shows them compassion, and takes an interest in them as a person.
  3. Understand people’s state of mind, show compassion, and support them. Uncertain times are emotional times; so remember that leadership is personal. Effective leaders make effort to understand the needs of their employees and how employees view their work, the connection between their work and their lives, their tolerance for the circumstances, and the stress they are under. People always value interaction and communication with their leaders, and this proves particularly true in troubled times. People want to know that their leaders remain committed, care about the people in the organization, value their employees, and will make sincere efforts to both build and maintain meaningful relationships with those they lead.
  4. Remain keenly aware of your emotional and social impact. I have observed that most people in assigned leadership roles really underestimate the influence they have on other people. When you are the Crew Boss, Chief, Program Manager, or Fire Management Officer, people watch your every move and take their cues from you. Effective leaders maintain an intense awareness of themselves and how people interpret their behavior. Effective leaders must remember that the shutdown affects each person differently; it’s an individual and personal experience. One employee may use the shutdown as an opportunity to take a vacation break while another may struggle to feed the kids. However, while it may seem odd, even the guy who just spent 30 days on the ski hill may be struggling. Create a climate in which people can see how they can adapt, show their resilience, support one another and see the path forward.
  5. Remind people of their available resources. Financial hardship, stress at home, separation from friends, loss of social network; these are all things that weigh on people emotionally and psychologically. If an employee is struggling, encourage them to reach out to mental health services when they are in trouble. Encourage employees and colleagues to take advantage of the agency’s employee assistance program if needed.

… And when we return

Focus people when they get back to work. The shutdown lies outside the influence of nearly every Wildfire reader. When people return to work, do not spend your attention or energy or allow your people to spend their attention and energy on factors beyond your or their control. Doing so wastes time, distracts people from what is important, and drags morale down. Whether you are responsible for two people or 2,000, focus on the part of organization for which you have stewardship. When you get back to work, get people together and revisit your mission, vision, core values, and priorities and refocus them. Concentrate on the mission-critical. It is in times like these when those elements of a solid strategy prove invaluable as guideposts.


Mike DeGrosky

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 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.