june 2013

THOUGHTS ON LEADERSHIP. Apparently we are living in the age of austerity, an economic philosophy demanding government policies that reduce budget deficits during unfavorable economic conditions. I can only imagine what austerity has done to our Mediterranean brethren, particularly in Greece and Spain.

Here in the United States, austerity arrived in the form of “budget sequestration,” a procedure that limits the size of the federal budget by inflexibly capping government spending. The current sequester is stupid. I mean that literally. The sequester was designed to be stupid – budget cuts so foolish that no one would dare allow them to happen. Yet we have. Now, faced with their failure, both Congress and the President’s administration are doubling down – Congress pretending that mindless, unguided budget cutting is good governance, and the President and his cabinet, having “cried wolf,” now making the impacts of the cuts as severe as possible with service reductions that seem more emotional than rational. Meanwhile, in the agencies where many Wildfire readers work, hardworking men and women must carry out their mission, keep the organization pointed in a positive direction, stay true to their core values and serve the people they lead.

Leading well in an austere environment can seem daunting, particularly when budget cuts seem so impactful, but simultaneously cynical, ineffective and pointless. So, how does one lead in the time of stupid? For wildland fire organizations, I have five suggestions.

  1. Focus. Budget sequestration and spending policy lay outside the influence of many Wildfire readers. 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 down morale. Whether you are responsible for two people or 2,000, focus on that part of organization for which you have stewardship. Keep your people safe; there’s nothing out there worth dying over. Get people together and revisit your mission, vision and core values, and refocus them. Separate the essential from the more expendable, concentrate on the mission-critical and innovate in order to achieve those mission-critical accomplishments. It is precisely in times like these when elements of a solid strategy prove invaluable as guideposts.
  2. 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 an 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, their will to follow and the stress they are under. 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, value their employees’ expertise and feedback, and will make sincere efforts to both build and maintain meaningful relationships with those they lead.
  3. Be transparent and communicate. Many Wildfire readers will necessarily make big decisions about organizational changes, many of which will directly affect people. Remember, your employees are aware of the situation, they know things are happening and they are anxious. In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks, often incorrectly. In this situation, effective leaders will maintain transparency with their workforce about the nature of the budget situation, their intent for addressing the situation, the rationale for their intent, and how their intended plans may directly impact the people they lead.
  4. Build and maintain trust. By focusing on what is important, understanding people, showing them compassion and support, communicating and being transparent, 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 individuals.
  5. Remain keenly aware of your emotional and social impact. I have observed that most people in assigned leadership roles grossly underestimate the influence they have on other people and the climate of the organization. After all, regardless of what level we have achieved in our career, we still feel like the same person inside. However, the reality is that when you are the crew boss, chief, program manager or fire management officer, people are watching your every move, taking their cues from your behavior. Effective leaders maintain an intense awareness of themselves, their behaviors, how people interpret their behavior, and how the leader affects the attitudes, values and beliefs of those they lead. Create a climate in which people see how they may adapt, show their resilience and see the path forward.

Painful as it may be, the reality is that some in Congress will continue to pretend that mindless, unguided budget cutting represents good governance. The President’s cabinet will continue to engineer cynical service reductions to prove their point. In the meantime, hardworking Wildfire readers must continue to carry out their mission, keep their organization pointed in a positive direction, stay true to their core values, and simultaneously serve both the taxpayers and the people they lead. Frankly, it is easy to lead when everything is going well; it is during times like these that leadership really matters. So in the absence of effective leadership at the top, how does a fire service leader lead in the time of stupid?

To be effective, I believe that, first and foremost, a leader in the wildland fire service must focus on the part of organization he or she holds and on keeping people safe. Then, he or she must strive to understand people’s state of mind, show compassion, support people, lead with transparency, communicate, build and maintain trust, and stay keenly aware of his or her influence and impact on people and the organization’s climate. Since we are in the opening rounds of what will undoubtedly be a serious fire season, I encourage my friends and colleagues to keep their people safe, keep it positive and, when it comes to the sequester, remember that this too shall pass.