Last week, a retired military commander took over as the White House chief of staff, stepping into a team environment that has been widely described as chaotic. Will Gen. John Kelly make a difference? What we’ve learned about leadership in my field of firefighting reveals why we must hope so.
On July 6, 1994, 14 wildland firefighters were entrapped by fire and killed in Colorado. The incident rocked the fire service, and the following year the U.S. Forest Service convened the “Human Factors Workshop” in Missoula, Mont. The aim was summed up by a newspaper headline: “After 80 Years of Studying Fire, the Forest Service is Studying Firefighters.” It wasn’t about pumps, hose or fire behavior, but an evaluation of human behavior. Why do people act (or fail to act) the way they do during stressful, high-tempo operations?
The findings of the workshop spurred the creation of a suite of intense leadership courses for the wildland fire agencies, and a renewed emphasis on risk-management and communication skills. There’s an ongoing effort to institutionalize the practice of effective techniques.
For the past decade, I’ve been a leadership instructor/facilitator for both rookies and emergency-service veterans. We draw on experience and wisdom from the military, the business community, the political sphere and social-sciences disciplines.
The courses have been well-received and transformative. At the end of one two-day session that involved heavy use of simulations and tactical decisionmaking games, one student approached me with a telling comment: “Well, this is just about life, isn’t it?”
Exactly. Though we focus on wildland fire and emergency operations, the principles apply across the board.
We talk about power and the different forms in which it manifests. For example, there is “position power” — you hold a job and a title that automatically confer authority. In the fire world, that would be an incident commander or a division supervisor; in the corporate domain, chief executive officer or chairman of the board. Perhaps the highest level of position power in the world is president of the United States.
I frequently find myself analyzing the leadership skills of those with position power. So when Donald Trump became president, I focused on him. The following assessment has nothing to do with political views — yours, mine or Trump’s. His opinions on immigration, climate change, taxes, health care, etc., are irrelevant to this discussion.
A few years ago, I jotted down the basic tenets of what the fire service considers effective and trustworthy leadership — the traits that get the work done without placing people in unacceptably hazardous situations. Judge for yourself which of these is exhibited by President Trump. In no particular order, a leader must:
• Recognize that a leader is a servant who holds the welfare of followers as first priority.
• Delegate as much as you reasonably can; trust, but verify. Remember you can delegate authority but not responsibility. You share the credit and the blame.
• Praise in public; criticize in private.
• Admit and own your mistakes; apologize, correct the error and move on.
• Seek the input of subordinates and superiors and follow it whenever you can. When their ideas and your ideas are equally legitimate, go with theirs and give them credit.
• Follow administrative rules yourself, but make allowances for your people when it’s justified; do the right thing, even if it bends a rule.
• Avoid arrogance in word, deed and demeanor.
• Do not mourn failure — more is learned from a debacle than from a triumph.
• Celebrate the success of your team, but keep your contribution understated. A leader never finally succeeds, but only progresses. You are not done learning and honing your skills until you are retired or dead.
• Be honest.
• Control your anger. It’s natural to be angry, but express it in measured tone and action.
• Practice “leader’s intent” — task, purpose, end state. Give your team the task (here’s what needs to be done); the purpose (here’s why it needs to be done) and the end state (here’s what success looks like). Then get out of their way. Do not micromanage.
• Talk — maintain a flow of accurate information up and down the chain of command.
• Know yourself. Understand your strengths and capitalize on them; recognize your limitations and find means to mitigate them, usually via the aid of others. Be aware of your personal stress reactions and make them known to your team.
• Employ recognition-primed decisionmaking (RPD). Under time pressure, you will make your decisions intuitively, grounded in experience of similar situations.
• Cultivate mindfulness. Attention and focus are essential to maintaining effective situation awareness, and therefore to the practice of all of the above.
Made your judgment? As I review that summary, it is my opinion that Trump is lacking in almost every category. He is arrogant, self-serving, dishonest and reckless, and he regularly claims undue credit while shedding any blame. He’s a bully and a narcissist.
I would not trust Donald Trump as a fireground leader. I do not trust him as president. Yet he was fairly elected last November and is, by definition, my president and yours. To claim otherwise is fatuous and unhelpful. Ironically, Trump is one of the few who thought the election was rigged — those pesky 3 million voters who cost him the popular vote majority. He claimed — without evidence — that they were illegal voters, another telling clue to his character.
But though he is my president, that doesn’t mean I must follow him.
During one of our leadership courses, we ask students: Why should anyone follow you? The point is that position power alone is not enough to ensure leadership. The best way to lead is to create an environment where people want to follow, as opposed to being compelled to. Leadership is exerting influence, and the best way to influence is by establishing trust. For me, and many millions of others, Trump has utterly failed in that.
There are those who believe (or hope) he will grow into the job. I expressed that hope in these pages last November, but it has evaporated. I doubt he will rise to the challenge.
As the great boxing champion Muhammad Ali noted: “The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses … in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
Trump’s character was formed, and fixed, long ago. He certainly didn’t wear a mask or a muzzle during the election campaign — what we saw was what we got. Why would he change an approach or a persona that got him elected to the presidency? He is convinced of his prowess and infallibility. Trump is now commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world, the occupant of the highest bully pulpit, and is surrounded by — so far as I can tell — a Cabinet of advisers who are more like him than not. Some are his relatives. To students of history, that sounds an alarm.
This is the type of executive branch the framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind when they devised the checks and balances. When Trump admitted that being president was harder than he thought it would be, constitutional resistance probably played a role. If we are fortunate, the worst damage Trump does will be to the notion that celebrity, notoriety and financial ruthlessness qualify you for high office. But I suspect it will be messier and more painful than that.
One of the finest leaders to wield the awesome position power of the president of the United States was Dwight D. Eisenhower. He exhibited almost all of the traits listed above — a signal and mature achievement. He said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.”
Perhaps Gen. Kelly can get that across to his boss?
I take some comfort in Trump’s low public-approval rating. As another skilled leader, Abraham Lincoln, noted in his first inaugural address: “While the people retain their virtue and vigilance, no administration, by any extreme of weakness or folly, can very seriously injure the government in the short span of four years.”
I hope our virtue and vigilance prevail. And I hope Lincoln was right.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is a 36-year fire service veteran, both wildland and municipal, and author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.