february 2017

Reflection on 25 years - Thoughts on Leadership

It is fair to say that I have a long history with the International Association of Wildland Fire and Wildfire magazine. I was the second President of the IAWF’s Board of Directors. When I first encountered the Wildfire operation, as something other than a reader, the IAWF owned a full-on printing operation in Fairfield, Washington. Multiple printing presses, big building, crew of professional pressmen, the whole works. All to print Wildfire, the International Journal of Wildland Fire and other IAWF publications, supplemented by some commercial printing. Having grown up around commercial printers, I was both fascinated and surprised. The organization’s founder, Dr. Jason Greenlee, ran a small empire in which both the magazine and journal were produced entirely in-house: editorial, design and layout, ad sales, everything.

While ambitious, innovative, and impressive, the IAWF printing operation ultimately proved financially unsustainable. After several years of downsizing, during a period of financial trouble that the IAWF is now long-past, the Board of Directors decided to liquidate the IAWF printing operation — a task that I largely carried out. Those were dark times; telling the few remaining workers they no longer had jobs and selling our beautiful, vintage Heidelberg presses at bargain prices. I saw, during that time, a surprising example of human spirit. Our head pressman, who would soon be without a job, hung in until the last press was sold and picked up while the other Board members and I struggled to bring things to a close from our offices hundreds of miles away.

I have always considered Wildfire, along with the International Journal of Wildland Fire and our conferences, to be the heart, lungs, and central nervous system of the IAWF. Losing either Wildfire or the Journal represented a threat to the IAWF’s very existence.

A tremendous partnership with CSIRO Publishing, that continues to this day, saved the International Journal of Wildland Fire, a publication with no peer in the world.

Though broke and facing a more difficult task, the IAWF Board also found a way to bring Wildfire back. We preserved the magazine by partnering with a consortium of small businesses in Jackson, Wyoming to start small, rely on Board members and other volunteers for editorial and managerial work, and bring the magazine back slowly. Saving both the International Journal of Wildland Fire and Wildfire could not have happened without the visionary leadership and hard work of the Board of Directors at the time.

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The December-January 2000-2001 issue of Wildfire where the first Thoughts on Leadership column was published.


Unfortunately, during this time, still digging out of financial trouble, the IAWF affiliated with another organization, an affiliation I take both credit and blame for initiating. Unfortunately, that affiliation brought people who did not share our values into our lives and ultimately led to the unseemly demise of the partnership between the Association and the small businesses that had taken a chance on us, fought and sacrificed with us, and who had helped bring us back from the brink of financial ruin.

Dark days again, and events that I still regret some 15 years later. Not only did we screw-over some really fine people running small start-up businesses, those people were my friends. I have told few people this, but I have never been more ashamed of something in which I was involved, particularly since I was a small business owner myself. The lesson for me, and I believe for some of my fellow board members, was that no matter how desperate the times, no matter the reason, be careful with whom you associate. Most of all, be impeccable with your personal integrity and never give up your autonomy and ability to keep others from acting on your behalf in ways that violate your personal values.

Another, more positive, lesson we can all learn from the life of Wildfire magazine is that perseverance pays off. Since the Jackson days, beginning with Fire Chief magazine, a series of commercial publishers produced, and actually owned, Wildfire though the magazine remained “the official publication of the IAWF.” Over time, with consolidation in a shrinking publishing industry, this model became unsustainable as well. The good news is that we got our magazine back. So now we have come almost full circle, and I commend our Executive Director Mikel Robinson, Managing Edi- tor Ron Steffens, and the magazine’s fine group of volunteers – Ed- itorial Board, Contributing Editors, contributors and staff – who keep this magazine going as a labor of love, just like it started out.

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Around 2000, at an IAWF Annual Meeting, Lark McDonald approached me with an idea. I had solicited his company, MCS, as a financial supporter of the IAWF. While unable to contribute financially, Lark suggested that he might write a recurring column on leadership as his contribution to the IAWF and Wildfire. From 2001 through 2004, Lark served as the primary contributor of Thoughts on Leadership, with me standing in from time-to-time when Lark needed relief. In 2005, I took over as the full-time contributor of Thoughts on Leadership, and I am proud to say that the column is still going strong a surprising 12 years later. There have been some pretty rough times but I personally have tried to treat those as learning and character building experiences; and I am proud of my affiliation with Wildfire and grateful for the people I have gotten to meet along the way.

I frequently cite my experiences with the IAWF and Wildfire as important ones for me and opportunities to learn some important life lessons that have influenced my personal approach to leadership ever since. For me, those life lessons include:

  • Influence and leadership take vision. Without Jason Greenlee’s original vision, Wildfire magazine would have never existed. Without visionary leadership by members of the IAWF Board and staff, Wildfire would have died long ago. In either case, the wildland fire community would have been a lesser place without Wildfire.
  • No amount of vision replaces hard work. Establishing, growing, saving, and sustaining Wildfire magazine has taken a lot of hard work on the parts of many people. The magazine is a good idea, but keeping it going requires sustained effort.
  • If something is a good idea, people will work hard for it. You just have to ask them.
  • No matter how desperate things look, no matter the situation, choose your friends wisely. Be impeccable with your personal integrity, never give up your autonomy, and never put others in the position of acting on your behalf in ways that violate your personal values.
  • Perseverance matters. If you believe in something, hang in there, work hard for it, don’t be afraid to sacrifice, work like you mean it.

What we’ve learned over 25 years

Be impeccable with your personal integrity, never give up your autonomy, and never put others in the position of acting on your behalf in ways that violate your personal values.



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.