Feb 01, 2018
The Evolution of Leadership in Fire: Stories from Three WTREX Leaders
Last Sunday morning, I sat crying at my kitchen table as my family went about its usual routine around me. They knew I wasn’t there with them; rather, I was in 19th-century China, immersed in the friendships, stories and heartbreaks of other women. I was in the final pages of a very good book — “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” by Lisa See — a historical fiction that is excruciating in its telling of the cultural oppression of women during that time, but also demonstrative of the power of friendship, language and storytelling. One of the most resonant themes of the book is the connection among women, which carried them through unthinkable pains: foot binding, arranged marriages, poverty and famine. For women in that time and place (Hunan Province, 1800s), their connection to each other was vital — so much so that women had their own private language to communicate with one another.
While reading that book, I’ve also been reflecting on the second Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX), held this past October near Yosemite National Park (PDF, 2.3 MB). Even though it’s 200 years later and half a world away, the same theme of vital connection prevailed at WTREX: connections among participants, and connections with female leaders in their field. In some cases, these types of support networks are the only things that keep women working in fire.
In some cases, these types of support networks are the only things that keep women working in fire.
When I originally set out to write a blog post about WTREX, I reached out to three of the women who helped make the event happen: Kelly Martin, the chief of fire at Yosemite National Park, who is on the WTREX planning team and served as this year’s incident commander; Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, a retired Forest Service Type 1 incident commander, who is also on our planning team and has served in various WTREX leadership roles in the last two years; and Lynn Decker, the North America fire initiative leader for The Nature Conservancy, who has supported more than 70 TREX events in the last decade through her programs and staff. I asked them to write responses to a few questions about leadership, and I had planned to merge their responses into an interview-style post. But Lynn pushed back on that idea, requesting instead a conversation among all of us — an opportunity to do some storytelling and weave a larger picture of their experiences as female leaders in fire.
Those of you who know Lynn might be surprised by her early inspirations in leadership. She came from a long line of athletic coaches, and was fairly certain that she’d follow suit. Her career ended up taking her in different directions — fisheries, then fire — but the legacy of coaching stayed with her.
Lynn remembers her father, a P.E. teacher and coach, demonstrating innovative leadership in the elementary school gym, during the ever-dreaded exercise of picking teams: he’d wait until all of the top athletes were chosen and then build a team with the leftover kids. Lynn remembers her dad’s teams as unexpected winners — he knew how to take a motley crew, identify and accentuate their assets, and build a winning team. To Lynn, this is the mark of a true leader, or even better, the mark of a good steward: someone who can recognize the strengths within her team that other people don’t see, or don’t take the time to see. And, a good steward is someone who is always asking questions: “Where are the undiscovered assets in the people who I work with? What is the goal or prize, and how do we leverage our assets to get there? At what point am I, as the leader, becoming the limiting factor? And, when do I need to give up control (or spread it)?” Over the years, Lynn has developed what she calls a “tight adaptive management loop” around her own management, and this has allowed her programs and staff to grow and flourish.
The mark of a true leader, or even better, the mark of a good steward, is someone who can recognize the strengths within her team.
For those of us who know Kelly, it’s hard to picture her descriptions of herself early in her career: a hardened crew boss — someone who had unreasonably high expectations of her crew, and was met with criticism from her subordinates. Her expectations were fair: high performance, timeliness, teamwork and not complaining, but her leadership style was unforgiving. It took a friendly confrontation by her supervisor, who was a trusted colleague, to soften her approach. And that sensitivity — that emotional intelligence — has become one of the hallmarks of Kelly’s leadership style in the 25 years since that conversation.
I’m sure the nuances of Kelly’s story are not lost on many of the people reading this blog. We know that women walk a fine line when it comes to expectations and leadership styles, especially in male-dominated fields like fire. As women, we hold ourselves to exceptionally high standards. We know that every mistake we make will be magnified, and we understand that our pitfalls as individuals may end up reflecting on our gender as a whole. Kelly admitted that she always felt that as a woman, she couldn’t just be average — she had to be better than everyone else, smarter in her leadership tactics and decisions. She reflected that her high standards for herself likely affected her expectations of her crew, and weakened the sense of crew cohesion.
Kelly admitted that she always felt that as a woman, she couldn’t just be average — she had to be better than everyone else, smarter in her leadership tactics and decisions.
Though Kelly has a firm and commanding presence, she is also compassionate and warm — unusual traits for a leader in fire. Kelly says she’s worked hard to understand and manage her emotional triggers, while also fostering “an environment that creates space for dissenting views.” She feels that open and trusting relationships, like the one she had with her supervisor in the early ‘90s, are critical for success, and good leaders must be willing to hear and consider different perspectives and criticism.
A recurring theme in our conversation was the idea that a good leader will find ways to be true to her authentic self. For Lynn, Kelly and Jeanne, this has been an essential component of their growth and progress: understanding who they naturally are as leaders, and creating space in fire for unconventional leadership. This revelation came early on for Jeanne, who was always surrounded by strong, independent women: her mother was an aeronautical engineer, her grandmother owned and managed stores in multiple states, and her great-grandmother ran a shop in Sicily. Jeanne came from a long line of working moms in male-dominated environments, so she felt right at home in fire when she started out in 1978, even though she was one of only eight women in fire who wasn’t a lookout or a dispatch officer.
A recurring theme in our conversation was the idea that a good leader will find ways to be true to her authentic self.
Jeanne says she was never fond of the status quo, and as she moved up in fire, she increasingly looked for mentors who pushed boundaries and were able to think outside the box. When she got to the point of building her own teams, Jeanne purposefully recruited people who had different skills and philosophies; she knew this was critical for avoiding “group think.” For Jeanne, power-sharing, creativity and honesty are fundamental features of leadership.
Kelly has known Jeanne for years, and says Jeanne’s insight and candor have always set her apart. Like Lynn (and Lynn’s dad), Jeanne has a knack for recognizing people’s hidden talents and pushing them to do more, even if it’s uncomfortable. There was even a point in Kelly’s career when Jeanne stepped in and helped her change direction — something Kelly might not have done on her own.
For me, connecting with these women is one of the best parts of WTREX events. In some ways, they represent a menu of leadership styles that the participants and I can observe, learn and pull from. They certainly have shared traits — smarts, confidence, compassion — but they also exude their own authenticity. Jeanne is bold and direct, with bright red fingernails that hint at her sass. She is also an accomplished quilter, and a mother to all — at home and on the fireline. Kelly wears long, dangly earrings, and is one of the warmest, most welcoming people I know. Nonetheless, she has a keen sense for operations, and is in charge of the most active and cutting-edge fire program in the National Park system. And Lynn is unique in fire because she doesn’t have a fire background (as she says, she doesn’t even like to get close to fire unless she’s cooking a fish over it). Yet, her intuition and intellect, and her ability to steward strong teams, have enabled her to advance the field in innovative ways (like TREX). I could listen to Lynn’s ideas all day.
Clearly, I’m a big fan of these women, but their careers have not been seamless. There have been times when they were disliked, disregarded, and made mistakes. But here they are, telling their stories and creating space for younger women and men in fire to learn from them. And that’s what WTREX is all about: creating connections — vital connections — and stewarding the next generation of fire practitioners. These are timeless themes: relationships, the power of language, the power of women — just as relevant now as they were in 19th-century China. But unlike the book, we no longer want or need a private language just for women; we are ready for a shared language — a living language — and a changed culture.
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