What We Can Learn From Wildfire Fighters

NPLI Director of Research Eric McNulty wrote a piece for strategy+business in May 2016 on leadership lessons for any organization that could be derived from the practices of wildfire fighters. It was timely then because of the Fort McMurray fires in Canada. It is relevant again today as we watch brave men and women put themselves in harm’s way in California. We cannot imagine a more daunting situation in which to find oneself no matter the amount of training or experience. Yet they, like firefighters everywhere, respond without question when we need them. NPLI alumni are among the responders now as they were then.

There are several lessons from wildfire fighting that are useful for any leader or organization navigating turbulence. Aside from the one below, let me share another lesson I’ve learned from my colleague, Rich Serino, former deputy administrator at FEMA. It is an important linguistic shift useful after any disaster from hurricanes to active shooter incidents to wildfires: There are victims of these fires–40 confirmed dead as we write this–everyone else affected is a survivor. Referring to people as survivors rather than victims helps reinforce their resilience and the important, active role they will play in their own recovery and that of their communities. Let us mourn the victims and support the survivors.

Be Alert for the UnexpectedMichelle Barton of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business and her fellow researchers call this skill “anomalizing”: Effective leadership performance requires managers to “be vigilant to anomalies (pdf) and then treat them as critical indicators of potential, emergent problems rather than normal. Such anomalies are critical signals that the system is breaking down.”

Failing to recognize and react to contextual changes quickly enough in a fast-moving situation can be deadly. In 2013, 19 members of the firefighting team Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed when overtaken by intense flames in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Yarnell, Ariz. In a settlement of a lawsuit between the families of the firefighters who perished and the Arizona State Forestry Division, commanders were cited for failing “to reevaluate, reprioritize, and update fire suppression strategies and plans after fire behavior and weather conditions dramatically changed,” according to the New York Times.

As of this morning, firefighters are making progress. There will be many difficult days ahead. We may not all have a role in response; we have both a role and a duty to be part of preparedness and recovery. I hope that these lessons help.