My experience as a Highly Sensitive Introvert in the wildland fire service

First things first, what did I just say in the title?  I’ve been doing a lot of reflective soul searching since I read Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking last fall.  As I read her book, it dawned on me that, hey, guess what, I’m an introvert. So many things in my life started to make sense, and I was compelled to dig a bit deeper.  I found that as introverts go I’m not terribly extreme, and I’m one of them that has developed into a capable leader with great professional people skills. I also discovered there’s another personality trait that I seem to exhibit, that of the The Highly Sensitive Person.  This Huffington Post article describes it in simpler terms, with examples that describe me pretty well.

So there it is:  I’ve got a combination of personality traits that make me a somewhat rare breed.  Depending on what corner of the internet you search, it seems like it’s probably about 20% of the population that shares these traits.  And just from my experience in the workplace, it would seem that a very small number of those 20% choose a career in fire.  The job seems to attract more of the outgoing, team-activity-loving, hard-charging, action-oriented “type-A” personalities that are generally more extroverted in nature.  That’s not a bad thing at all, in fact there are a lot of times when my career would have been made much easier if I shared those traits.  I’ve had to put a lot of effort into overcoming the challenging parts of being a quiet person in a loud profession, and I’m learning every day how I can leverage my quiet skills to make a difference in a positive way.

In no real order, here are some of the things I’ve struggled with in my career in fire, from my first seasons as a tool swinger to my current position as Assistant Manager on one of the busiest helitack crews in the Forest Service.

1)  It’s hard to stand out from the crowd.  I’ll be honest, I really don’t like attracting attention.  I’ve learned to accept being the center of attention when it’s needed, especially as a leader.  Being comfortable commanding attention when I need to has been a difficult art to develop, but it’s a skill that has to be in every good leader’s toolbox.  Fortunately I’m gifted in stature (I’m built like a sasquatch) and have a big voice when I need it, so when I put myself to it I can get people’s attention fairly easily.  But I’m still the quiet guy who doesn’t really take command of a conversation unless I have to.  I’m typically happiest just hanging back and listening to what everyone else has to say.  I’ll absolutely jump into a conversation if it’s something I’m passionate about, but mostly I’m happy letting others do the talking in a group setting.

It’s also difficult when the skills I do have tend to be less obvious at first glance than those of other people.  I’m great at a lot things that you don’t notice at first glance, but are vital to keeping a crew, helibase, or fire program up and running.  Let’s be honest here, I’m not a marathon runner or great hiker, I’m not the best sawyer in the world, I don’t have a ton of operations qualifications, and I’m usually not the first person to raise my hand for anything at the spur of the moment.  None of that makes me any less capable of doing my job, because I make up for those shortcomings in other areas, but it makes me less likely to stand out, and in this business it’s often those who stand out that have the most success.

2) People think I’m hesitant or unsure of myself.  I’ve always been that guy that hangs in the back of the room and observes what’s going on before jumping in and participating.  I like to thoroughly understand what I’m getting into, and I take the time to analyze the situation before I make a decision and act.  And I always like to get feedback from others, even if I’ve already made my decision.  These are all good things when working in a high-risk environment, right?  The problem here is that in a culture that prides itself on action, the time I take to evaluate and consider the scenario and outcomes is often seen as hesitation or uncertainty.  When I ask for feedback or other ideas, it’s often perceived that I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m asking for help.  Sometimes I am asking for help, true, but the vast majority of times I’m just making sure I haven’t overlooked something.  Projecting confidence is something I have to work on almost every day.

3) I’m extremely self-critical.  I’m constantly evaluating my performance, and weighing myself against the actions of others.  Again, this is good, right?  Well, yes and no.  When I spend so much time criticizing myself, sometimes any criticism from others, no matter how well-intentioned, is difficult to take.  Even when things go well, I’m usually getting down on myself, evaluating what could have gone better.  While this can be very useful for After Action Reviews, it can also be tough if I don’t force myself to focus on the good as well.

4) Conflict, specifically standing up for myself when resolving it.  I’m a nice guy.  My tendencies are towards being a quiet, polite, kind and caring person who avoids conflict.  But guess what?  Conflict is inevitable, especially in fire.  I’ve had to learn how use my gifts of empathy, perception, and intuition to resolve conflicts.  I’m pretty good at fixing problems using methods that are less obvious than the typical gruff, yell and  scream kind of tactics I see a lot of leaders use.  My first Helibase Manager trainer was a rough and tough, my way or the highway kind of guy with a very aggressive approach to resolving conflicts.  It worked for him, but it wasn’t going to work for me, and in the course of a discussion on leadership styles he made a comment that has stuck with me to this day.  He said “Don’t ever mistake kindness for weakness.  Jesus Christ was kind, but he sure as hell wasn’t weak.”   I’ve learned how to approach conflict firmly, and confidently, but also with kindness.  It’s not easy to do, but it’s worked so far.

The good news is that there are some things I’m able to make work to my advantage.

1)  Preparation.  You remember the Boy Scout thing, “be prepared?”  Because I’m constantly analyzing and evaluating, well, just about everything, I usually have a backup plan.  Or two, or even three.  I mentally consider the most likely outcomes in any given situation, and prepare for them as best I can.  Need someone to plan logistics for a project?  I’m probably a good choice for this.  Need someone to coordinate and teach a class?  Guess who will obsess over every little detail and pull it off even if there are unforeseen challenges – me.  Is there a document that needs to be analyzed and proofed for distribution?  An aviation plan or contract that needs to be understood and enforced? Making sure time and travel is done quickly and efficiently? These are all things I can take care of, no problem.

2)  Seeing what the situation is.  Okay, so this is harder to articulate.  I’m very, very good at intuitively seeing the connections between what’s happened, what’s going to happen, and why it’s happening.  I’m able to understand complex interactions between variables, and because I pay close attention to the details, I can often see those variables changing before other people do.  I can see what’s different this time, and tell what’s going to change because of it.  I don’t have some sort of awesome super power, I’m just very good at observation, and if I study something long enough I’ll understand it pretty well.

3)  People.  Even though I need time away from social activities to recharge, I’ve come to discover that I’m really a people person.  The few years I spent outside of the lower 48 fire world, I realized that fire folks are a huge reason why I enjoy this job.  I have deep empathy for people, and that’s been a great gift because as a leader, people should be my first priority, every time.  I care deeply about taking care of those I work with, and my passion for seeing that they get the best I can provide is one of my strongest personality traits.  I’ve also been able to use my attention to detail to help with building relationships quickly on incidents.  I’ve been at this job long enough, and paid enough attention to people and their connections, that I can usually find some common ground when I meet someone new. Maybe it’s a place we both worked, someone we both know, or a big fire we were both on… I’ll usually find a connection, and that’s a great way to build teams in a hurry.

4)  Working smarter, not harder.  It’s always good to be seeking out the safest, most effective and efficient way to complete a given task.  That part of me that’s always evaluating a problem is also looking for the easiest, best, or most efficient way of doing something.  If there’s a better way to approach a task, you can bet I’ll be working on how to figure it out.  And I have no problems seeing something that works great in one place and learning how to apply it in another area.  If something already works, then I won’t be out to change it just because I can.  In my current position in fire aviation, this is an important part of day to day work, because typically the more efficient you are, the less exposed you are to hazards, and less exposure is usually good.

Which leads to…

5)  Risk analysis.  As I’ve already alluded to, I’m great at looking at a given situation and seeing the worst case scenarios.  I’m pretty talented at thinking about the “what if’s” in this business, as my mind is constantly sorting out what’s happened, what’s happening now, and what could happen.  I’m also good at evaluating how likely a given risk is, how severe the consequences would be, and how that should play into my decision making process.

I’m far from perfect, and I’m far from being anywhere near the best at this job.  There are plenty of other folks whose personalities are much better suited to the fast-paced workplace than mine.  But I’m slowly figuring out how I can contribute using my unique skills too, and as we all know, it takes all kinds.

I know I’m not the only quiet person that’s found a way into a fire career, and I won’t be the last I’m sure.  I’m hoping that by sharing my experiences I can somehow help or inspire other quiet leaders to realize that while our style and methods of leadership are different than a lot of the people we interact with daily, they can be incredibly effective.  There’s a lot that introverts and highly sensitive people bring to the table, and if they have the desire to work through the difficulties, they are capable of being leaders who are strong, charismatic, and effective without compromising their core values.

Until next time…


About Justin Vernon

I'm an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.
This entry was posted in Introvert, Leadership, Wildland Fire. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to My experience as a Highly Sensitive Introvert in the wildland fire service

  1. Lynn says:

    HI – I linked to your article from the Leadership Freak site. I identified with every single aspect of your post – I am surrounded by extroverts and it was so good to hear from someone who thinks like I do. I am just starting to figure out how to leverage my introvert/sensitive traits in my workplace and I’m going to post your article at my desk to remind me of all the things that I can bring to the table. Thank you SO much for sharing your experience and insights.

    • Thanks for the comment – glad you got something out of it! That’s been the most interesting part of my leadership journey – putting myself out there only to find that there are a LOT of similar folks around, that I never knew about.

  2. Nikki says:

    I, too, linked to your article from Leadership Freak. Brilliant, Justin. I found myself smiling, nodding like a bobble head, and wanting to give you a sasquatch high five with every point!

    Being a female manager in the business world, surrounded by both male and female extroverts, I feel like a lone warrior of my people. As an introvert, alone time is critical to my well-being, as well as the well-being of those around me, so it can pose quite the challenge knowing I have to fight the daily extrovert grind.

    The Lord made us all different for a reason and a purpose. I take a deep breath, remind myself of that each day and try to look for, and appreciate, the best in everyone. Those times when my plan fails me, I pull a brief hiatus ….. where chocolate may or may not be involved.

  3. Sasquatch high five! I’ve also found chocolate to be a great little treat when I get frustrated by the plan, ha! That’s the most important part for me… it takes all kinds to get anything done in a management environment.

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