Thoughts on Resiliency

Resiliency is something that I think we don’t talk about much in the wildland fire service, and it’s something I never really thought about until recently.  The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program’s 2014 campaign is The Resilient Team, and I thought I’d write a bit about my thoughts on the subject.

What is resiliency?  I like the definition used in the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy.  They define resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”  Basically, resiliency is how we react to change and hardship.  There’s no hard and fast rule or measurement, but it’s easy to recognize resiliency when we see it.  By the same token, there’s no easy way to build resiliency – it’s a personal journey, one that some people have a natural tendency to be better at than others.  Some studies have shown that up to two-thirds of the human population is naturally resilient – that is to say they bounce back from change and tragedy more easily than the rest of us.

Many of us are familiar with resiliency in ecological terms, especially in the fuels and fire use/fire for resource benefit arenas,  but I’ve rarely seen it discussed in human terms, at least by fire people.  There’s been a lot of discussion about social resilience in the disaster response and economic circles in the past few years, and that’s where I’ve formed a lot of my ideas about human factors and resilience.  Many of the ideas and principles are universal in nature, and are easy to apply within fire leadership.

So why is it important, especially to us as wildland firefighters?  I’d say it’s because we work in an environment where change is near-constant, personally and professionally, and we face a multitude of hardships on a regular basis.  When change and hardship are such a large part of our lives, it naturally follows that we should be a culture that promotes the development of resilient individuals and teams.

How then can we as leaders and followers promote this idea among our friends and coworkers, and become more resilient ourselves?  I think our leadership program already teaches a few nuggets of wisdom on how to do it.

The most obvious way we encourage resilience in our leadership classes is getting people to go outside of their comfort zones.  Now, I’ll be the first to argue that comfort zones are a natural, built-in safety mechanism that shouldn’t be ignored.  They exist for a reason, which is to keep us from doing something risky that we’re not properly prepared for.  Skydiving is a great example.  It’s outside of most people’s comfort zone for good reason, because if done incorrectly it’s extremely dangerous.  But we’ve developed systems which mitigate the dangers, and with guidance and close supervision just about anyone can safely step outside their comfort zone and jump out of an airplane with no adverse consequences.

The same applies to fire and leadership.  We as leaders should always make sure those we mentor have room to safely push the boundaries of their comfort zones.  The more we try, fail, and learn from those failures, the more resistant we become to hardship, because in a sense we’ve been there before, and we are better prepared to deal with it.  As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, a person who makes mistakes, but never makes the same one twice, is more resilient than someone who’s never made a mistake at all, because they know how to react when faced with adversity, and how to learn from it.  Giving ourselves and others room to step out and face new challenges with a safety net in place allows us to learn from our mistakes, and makes us resilient.

It’s the same concept as high-output interval training in physical fitness, I think.  As we push ourselves personally and professional, trying new things, new ideas, and new ways of doing business, we grow.  We don’t need to be constantly pushing the envelope, and in fact constant stress is a negative thing, but periodically doing so in a safe and smart manner allows us to become stronger and more resilient.  There’s always a degree of risk involved with going beyond our comfort zones, be it emotional or physical, but there’s room to mitigate those risks and use them as an opportunity for growth.  Overcoming mental challenges can give us confidence for facing future challenges, just as challenging physical training can increase our ability to be safe and productive on the fireline.

I think that as firefighters, we all thrive on challenge to some degree.  To quote Taleb again, Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. I think that line applies beautifully to many of us in fire – we benefit from challenges, we do our best work in a random and sometimes chaotic environment, and we love the adventure and uncertainty of it all.

Another area where we also promote resiliency is in giving Leader’s Intent.  I personally think as a leader it’s my job to provide clear intent, but to allow plenty of room for innovation.  If the desired end state is clear, there’s plenty of room to improvise and still accomplish the task if you face unexpected challenges.  The ability to innovate, and to fluidly respond to changes in the mission, the conditions, or the tools we’re given, is very important in our line of work.  We are resilient if we give our people the power to react as needed to changing conditions on the fireline, and we foster the ability to think outside the box.  Innovation breeds resilience.

I think we’re making progress in giving more people the skills and authority to lead.  We’re all leaders in some sense, even if we’re only leading ourselves. Especially in fire our ability and responsibility to lead is not necessarily tied to our day jobs.  In my day job I’m the second-line supervisor on a ten-person crew, but on my redcard I’m qualified to lead and be responsible for groups of forty or fifty people on an incident.  I know people in fire who have no supervision or leadership authority in their official positions, yet are excellent leaders, and regularly go out on the line and lead as Division Supervisors or Helibase Managers.

To use an analogy, it’s like having a deep bench on a football or basketball team.  If for some reason the primary leader is unable to lead, you need to have competent and capable folks around who can step in and fill the void.  Even if the primary leader is there, it’s often valuable to have others around who can help out as needed.  There’s a reason why there’s a deputy Incident Commander on incident management teams.  Sometimes we all need a little help, and the more people who are willing and able, the better.  Redundancy in leadership is a good thing if everyone realizes there’s a time and a place to step up and lead, and there’s a time and place to hang back and follow.  The more capable leaders we have on the ground, the better we are prepared to face the unexpected when it occurs.

I suppose that creating resilience can also be summed up simply as preparing for the worst, hoping for the best, and expecting something completely different.  We are resilient when we’re prepared to handle whatever unexpected hardship comes our way.  I think that as fire leaders it’s our responsibility to create followers who are able to shine in the face of adversity, professionally and personally.  As followers, it should be our goal to become more resilient, to step up and face challenges head on, and to grow and learn when we make mistakes.

Our collective goal should be to create a culture that not only faces adversity and comes through unscathed, but grows stronger from the experience.

If anyone is interested in reading more about resiliency, I highly recommend the two books mentioned above:  Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy; and Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Both are currently available through most online book sellers, and some larger brick and mortar stores.  The first, Resilience, is an easy read with many examples and case studies that look at disasters and emergency response.  The second, Antifragile, is a more in-depth look at the topic by an economist with philosophical leanings.  As much as I love the ideas contained in the book, it’s harder to read and often takes off on technical tangents, but contains a wealth of simple ideas about resiliency if you can dig through it and get to them.  The author knows and admits it when he gets a bit technical, and is kind enough to point out the parts that you can skip if you’re interested in the more practical sections.  My personal copy is bookmarked at every page where I found a good idea or one liner, and there are marks about every twenty pages or so.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also 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. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
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One Response to Thoughts on Resiliency

  1. Pingback: Resilience on a more personal level | chasing fire

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