Forest Fires Leadership: Leader Down


You and your team work conscientiously on an incident. As a member of the Bravo team headed by one of the greatest service managers, you and everyone around you know that you are in good hands. Your leader is highly respected on the lines and outside shooting operations. There is no part of duty, respect and integrity that is not reflected by your leader.

Today is a normal day on the line, until … (these words do not appear too often in our reports of accidents). Something happens to your big boss, putting them out of order. The details behind the event are not important. Your beloved leader is incapacitated and can not lead. And then?

The answer to this question depends on what your leader and your team did before the event. Is there anyone able and willing to step up and direct? Did your team conduct pre-mortem exercises to ensure business continuity?

Leadership in times of crisis is not the way that one wants to become a leader. The reality is that many individuals become leaders because of a lack of leadership. Take the decision to lead!

Continuity of operations is essential within the Forest Fire Department. Our leaders have a duty to ensure that those below them are prepared in case of incapacity. Decentralized command is closely linked to a bias for action, where the people under our command can make a decision without the approval of the hierarchy, not freelance. We are all leaders at all times!

"Intensive training is the solemn duty of coaches and leaders every day." – Jacko Willink

No team wants result in the loss or injury of a member of the team, particularly his or her leader; but we must.

The power to lead in relation to the decision to lead
(Lead in the Forest Fire Department, p. 5-6)

The power of leadership is established by law. Whether this authority is based on federal, state or local laws, we are legal agents exercising authority on behalf of our organizations.

The ability to lead is a different issue. it is something that can not be legislated. To be effective, leaders must gain the trust and respect of others. A leader's journey is a perpetual cycle of acquiring, shaping and developing leadership knowledge and skills. The leadership journey is never over.

Once we are committed to becoming leaders, our goal is no longer ourselves. Fire chiefs bear the heavy responsibility of putting others at risk and making decisions that deeply affect citizens, communities and natural resources.

Leadership is a difficult choice. Leaders choose to sacrifice their own needs for those of their teams and organizations. They regularly face situations and make decisions that others criticize and question. Leaders take risks and challenges every day.

So, why do we choose to lead? We lead because to lead is what makes the difference.
Fire leaders bring order to chaos, improve the lives of our people and strengthen our organizations. Leading allows us to leave a legacy to the leaders of the future so that they can take our places well prepared for the road ahead.

These are the leadership awards. Their effects will be visible and felt long after the end of our career.

Leadership challenge in forest fires – Fucking a little further

  • Lily The leadership dichotomy by Jacko Willink and Leif Babin. Part II, Chapter 5 – "Train hard, but train smartly" inspired this post.
  • Develop and implement a pre-mortem training plan that includes a vacant leadership position.

About the author: Pam McDonald is Editor-in-Chief for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and a member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.