Does BLM Wildland Fire Teach Low Level Leadership Well?

By Meghann Gunther, MTI Contributor

What I Was Taught My First Year On an Engine

  My first season in Wildland Fire was on a BLM type 3 Engine in a rural community in Northern California.  As a first year employee with no fire experience, there was no expectation for me to lead or take ownership of anything in particular. It was the summer I dipped my feet into the Wildland Fire environment and learned as a follower. I watched how my captain and engineer led our crew and started building mental slides of both fire and leadership in fire. 

What I Observed and Learned in My Second Year of Fire as a Rookie Hotshot

  My second year in fire was on a Federal Interagency Hotshot crew, and my experience with leadership training was very different from my previous year on the engine. Even though I was a rookie and still new to wildland fire, I was expected to lead at my position. This took the form of owning operational tasks and chores within the crew. If there was a problem within my scope as a crewmember, the expectation was that I would come up with a solution. I was supposed to own the issue and find a solution – although it was also made clear that I didn’t have to figure it out on my own and could ask for help if I needed it. It is an Extreme Ownership principle, for those familiar with Jocko Willink. The Superintendent expected the crew to own itself, which meant everyone needed to lead up and down the Chain of Command, at whatever position and level they were at. This didn’t mean the Chain of Command was thrown out; rather I was expected to think for myself and problem solve instead of waiting to be told what to do. Second year crew members were expected to teach the rookies their roles and the operational flow of the crew. 

 That year, I was put through L-280: “Followership to Leadership”. It was a two day event hosted at another resource station. I went through the class along with my rookie class and other folks from the district. The course included classroom time with powerpoints, discussions and various team building games. After it was finished, we went home and continued on with our fire season. There were no additional resources given to build our leadership skills during our upcoming season and it felt more like an event to simply check boxes for wildfire qualifications. Its content was made up of well-intentioned material but it felt sterile. I didn’t come away with a lot that translated to me on an operational basis at my GS-3 level. Maybe I was put through that class too early. However it was the next step in leadership training available and it was an opportunity to attend and participate.  

  I was determined to observe my crew leadership during the season and learn as much as I could from them. What I learned informally was invaluable to me. I saw several different styles of leadership within the crew. Some of my leaders were more vocal while others were very quiet. Some of the middle level leadership was more informal and relaxed with the crewmembers while some higher leadership maintained distance. I watched how they solved problems, and if I had the chance to ask them why, it helped me understand their thought processes and methods. 

My Position, Responsibilities, and Expectations as a Second Year Hotshot

  This year I returned to the same hotshot crew. My responsibilities and expectations are much higher than they were last year. A low level leadership role opened up and I was placed in it by my captains. The retention issue in Wildland Fire created an opportunity for me, as a diligent and competent employee, to step into formal leadership much earlier than historically possible. I am being given the tools and support to find success in this new role by my captains and superintendent. There are guidelines and Standard Operating Procedures to provide me with the how and why of leading within the crew. More than that, there is guidance from my overheads; I can go to any of them with my questions to get their advice. 

  Spending my second fire season with the hotshots laid a foundation of leadership that I believe will help me find success in my new role this season. It wasn’t because of a class or PowerPoint but rather all of the informal education on leadership and how I am being mentored by the leadership above me. This is because my crew, the Diamond Mountain Hotshots, develop and challenge people. They develop leaders – and historically, really good ones. 

The Leadership Classes I Took Vs What I Was Taught Informally

 So far in my career, I have been put through two formal leadership classes. The first was L-180, which goes over the basics of human factors in Wildland Fire Service. It is required in the initial basic classes to qualify for your red card. To sum the class up, basically you have to work with other people in Wildland Fire and  communicate with them. How? Well, that class doesn’t really start to cover how to lead at that level with other people. The human factor is complex; as a leader, you have to be able to actively listen to your people, clearly communicate your intent and effectively deal with conflict. On top of that, you need to know the needs of your people and what tools you can provide so they can be successful. The second class was the follow up to L-180, which is L-280 which goes over the transition from being a follower to a leader.  L-280 isn’t a required qualification until about the GS-6 level. Considering that there are opportunities and the need for GS-4 and GS-5 folks to step up and lead, that is a big gap between formal leadership training. 

  Watching my leadership was a valuable way for me to learn. When I had the opportunity to ask them the why behind certain decisions, it helped me further build mental slides for leading. I watched how discipline was enforced and saw that details were not neglected. This informal education on leadership, especially from a highly disciplined hotshot crew, had considerably more value in addition to being more applicable than a PowerPoint class. 

Maybe this is just how I personally learn leadership. I need to be in the thick of it, observing, making decisions, tackling problems, and being guided and corrected by strong, seasoned leaders in order to grow as a leader. What is really hard to capture on a PowerPoint is how to listen to people; how to help them come up with solutions rather than telling them what to do; how to catch issues before they become full blown events; how to encourage your team to overcome their weaknesses. That’s in addition to checking your ego, being teachable, keeping the big picture in mind, working with difficult individuals, and building trust with your subordinates! 

My Observation on What Works Well and What Doesn’t

  Can you really teach leadership in a classroom with a dozen students limited to less than eight hours? Especially if  those folks in the room, like me, were first, second, or third year employees who were focused on learning their jobs as firefighters. Can you put someone through an online class on leadership with no follow up and expect them to come away with the tools to develop as a leader? Maybe you can give some principles, but how do you follow up and help people develop their leadership style and challenge themselves on their weaknesses? How do you teach lower level leadership? From my observation and personal experience, good leadership can be taught in an informal setting. Good leaders influence and develop good leaders by taking the time to invest in their people at the operational level. My development as a leader has come from observing both good and bad leaders, asking questions and being mentored by others, and being pushed by my overhead to step up and lead because they saw that I wanted to learn. In addition, reading and learning leadership principles on my own time has been a big help.

  A trait I have observed in strong leaders in the wildland community is the ability to stay engaged with their subordinates. One way this is done on my crew is through our PT program. Our superintendent hikes the PT hill each time the crew hikes it. He engages in the PT programs that are provided – pre-season, post season, and during season. This helps create buy-in to the emphasis put on physical fitness as professionals on a hotshot crew. The superintendent and captains have been working with us, the leads and squaddies, to put people in roles in our chainsaw program, our medical training, and our admin duties. While working alongside us, they push us to be as self-sufficient as possible as new leaders learning new roles. They observe strengths and place individuals in positions to own tasks and find success. For example, a very competent and skilled former sawyer, now squad leader, is our saw boss.  A detail focused lead was put into the cache manager position. This observation was key for me. It shows me the value of leaders having a mindset that their subordinates don’t just work for them but rather with them. I’m seeing that good leaders pay attention to roles and experience, delegating tasks appropriately, and a by-product of this is seems to be more buy-in for the subordinate, which in turn strengthens the crew. 

  You get out what you put in. Nobody is going to just hand me the tool to be a leader who others will follow, I have to put in the work to become one. I have to stay teachable and keep a learner’s mindset. For me, learning leadership skills doesn’t stop at reading leadership books. I am pursuing and being challenged to step up and lead in as many situations as I can competently tackle. Some of these tasks look like taking lead on a National Medical Program at a state level for my district, assisting with teaching fire refresher classes, and taking ownership of daily operations within the crew. Some of these things are way above my pay grade, but I am being given the support and direction I need to accomplish them along with the accountability and boundaries necessary. I’m going after these opportunities because I want to lead people well, grow as an individual and own the space/position I am in. Observing my superintendent, captains, and squad leaders has helped me. Being able to bounce ideas off them and ask questions about how they handle certain things within the crew is building my mental leadership slides. 

  Is there a way to build a formal class to teach these things? I think something can be built that is a starting place – an introduction to leadership with resources provided to challenge people to grow and develop themselves. Resources from teachers like Jocko Willink, John Maxwell, Pete Blaber, and Simon Sinek could be suggested. In addition, to bridge the gap between L-180 and L-280, I believe teaching how to actively listen, how to communicate effectively and how to take ownership of your position would build and strengthen leadership at the lower level. It seems to me that there is space to build more formal tools to help young leaders grow and lay good foundations as they move forward in their careers. In the end, it takes time and good leaders to develop leadership. As an individual you have to put in the effort and show your Chain of Command that you are willing to put in time to become a good leader.  It takes mentors, opportunities to lead, and challenges. I believe building leadership is something that is very difficult to accomplish in a classroom in a couple of PowerPoints. It takes boots on the ground, operational challenges and problem solving opportunities along with resources to read, listen to and engage in for learning.

  In my experience, the formal leadership classes in the BLM that I have been put through so far haven’t really helped develop me at my lower level leadership. They do offer some foundational points. However, I found a solid crew with seasoned overhead along with good leaders in the district who are focused on developing and investing in their people. That is where I am being challenged to lead with excellence and grow both as a leader and a Wildland Hotshot. With the experience gap and recruiting and retention issues that the Wildland Fire community is facing, myself and others are finding ourselves with more responsibility and leadership tasks/roles much earlier than historically experienced. Despite stepping into leadership earlier and taking on more responsibilities at lower GS levels, the formal leadership training in place doesn’t seem adequate. In addition to mentoring and informal leadership development, it seems to me that there is room to build more formal tools to present to young leadership in order to help them grow and develop to lead others well.

Meghann is a full time Wildland Firefighter in California.

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