Leadership, risk and the shades of gray

  I spent three days at the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy in Prescott, Arizona, in March, learning what it takes to be a leader. It was my third course there, a third opportunity to spend time with the selflessly brave men and women who battle fire in the wild lands. For it is not the chemicals that drop from airplanes or the water that rains from helicopters that put out these fires. It is people who toil for sixteen hours a day, for two straight weeks, felling trees, hacking off brush and scraping the hardened ground with shovels, rakes, pounders and axes – landscaping tools, really – to safeguard lives and homes.
Guiding a blindfolded classmate through a mock mine field during an exercise.

Guiding a blindfolded classmate through a mock mine field during an exercise.

They love the job they do – and the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots whose story I tell in my book, The Fire Line, were no different. One of them, Garret Zuppiger, used to marvel at the fact that he was being paid to visit gorgeous country few others ever get to see and sleep on the dirt, under the stars, even if after a tough day's work on the fire line. The job is for the young, mostly – 14 of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013 were in their 20s. And it is a demanding job, physically and mentally. These young firefighters operate in an inherently risky environment, and they're forced to make decisions constantly, constantly adapting to conditions that can easily and tragically change with a gust of wind, a missed radio connection, breaks in an incident command's rigid hierarchy of power. Among Hotshot crews, trust is paramount, and the ability to choose firefighters of complementary strengths is a key characteristic to a strong leader. Another is prudence. The problem is how to evaluate prudence in a job that dwells on the shades of gray in this black-and-white world we live in. I don't know if I know the answer to that. But I do know that intentions matter – and that a leader's decision on the fire line is predicated on getting the men and women under his command home safe. These days, we're almost conditioned to judge actions through a two-dimensional lens – Is he guilty or not guilty? Is she right or wrong? Are they good or bad people? Often, one of the most anticipated segments of presidential debates is the yes-or-no round. But, I wonder, do we really want our leaders to be oversimplifiers? Researching and writing the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots taught me many lessons, and one of them is to always appreciate the value of nuance. I hope that when you read The Fire Line, you'll get to value it too.

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