How to lead from a cubicle (and other odd places)

Wildland Firefighter Memorial, NIFC

Wildland Firefighter Memorial at NIFC in Boise, ID

One of my favorite leadership quotes goes something like “if you think you’re leading but no one is following, you’re just going for a walk.”  While it’s got that great punchy character that gets people’s attention, and it’s indeed true in a lot of situations, it doesn’t apply to every situation.  As I’m sure many of you know, there’s more to being a leader than just being in the front of the pack, and it’s likely that most of us will be in a situation at some point in our careers where we don’t have anyone following us in the traditional sense.

In my life, I’ve recently made a career move that puts me in a situation where I’m not exactly a leader, but not exactly a follower either.  I went from being the assistant supervisor on a ten-person crew to a position where I work as a member of a three-person module where we’re more peers than anything else.  I went from working in an environment where there were lots of “lead from the front” opportunities to one where leadership is definitely more subtle.  I spend a lot of my time in a cubicle, in the winter and shoulder seasons at least, and it seems when I do make it to the field, I’m doing my own thing, collecting data and being a kind of freelance Field Observer (FOBS) rather than leading a crew or squad.  I do plan on continuing to do fire in the traditional sense, taking assignments here and there to stay current and up to speed, but it’s not my primary job these days. It’s not a unique situation by any means, as on every district, forest, field office, or park there are fire effects folks, fuels technicians, and various prevention and patrol people that don’t fit into a traditional leadership role.

To my mind, this is where the idea of leadership as a more holistic concept comes in.  Look at the values and principles championed by the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program for example… it’s not all about others.  In fact, there are several principles of leadership that are more self-oriented, like being proficient at your job, or seeking self improvement.  Being in that in-between place between follower and leader can actually be a great opportunity to  do some personal growth.

In my case this is especially true, as I’ve challenged myself to not grow stagnant as a leader, but to find other ways to contribute.  Sure, I’m not leading people in the traditional sense, and it probably looks like I’m out for a walk more often than not, but I’m learning that being a leader within a community like wildland fire and aviation means more than just leading the boots on the ground.  I’ve taken on some additional responsibilities, like assisting the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program with their social media and reading programs.  I’ve taken the time to put myself through some training I never had the opportunity to pursue before, like accident investigation and risk management.  I’m making new professional connections, and gaining new perspective on leadership as a result of seeing and doing things in a way I really hadn’t before.

In a funny way, in stepping away from a stereotypical leadership role I’ve realized that there’s much more to being a leader than just having followers.  In fact, you can have just as much, if not more influence by being a follower, so to speak.  When you don’t have position power, you’re forced to think more about what you’re trying to do, and why, and have better justification for your actions than you would otherwise.  I think that, far from being a negative thing, being a follower and leading via influence is just as important as being a positional leader.  Everyone has a boss after all, even if you are in a leadership position you’ll still have peers, and leaders above you.

So if you’re like me, and not in a traditional leadership role, I challenge you to take a look at your situation and find opportunities to grow as a leader, and as a person.  Look for ways to support those around you, ways to enable your peers, and those around you, to be better at what they do.  As I see it, being outside, being a follower, you can wield as much, if not more influence than you could before, and the opportunities are endless… Sometimes taking leadership actions, looking out for your coworkers and peers, can create a chain reaction of leadership good vibes.

If you find yourself making a transition from leader to follower like I have, treat it as an opportunity to approach familiar problems from new angles, or even tackle new challenges.   Go forth and do good things, and don’t stop being a student of fire, and leadership.

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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2 Responses to How to lead from a cubicle (and other odd places)

  1. Hello Justin. I came across this photos online, which allowed me to find your blog. I think your writing and photos are wonderful. My husband, Lawrence J Nowlan (aka Doobie), was the sculptor that created the sculptures for the Wildland FF Monument there in Boise. As you may have heard he passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in July of 2013. My children and I miss his so much still and are heartbroken he is not hear to walk with us on our life journey.
    The reason I am writing is to ask permission to use this photo. A documentary is being created by his high school in Radnor, PA and they wanted an image from the Boise monument. This one seems perfect. Let me know your thoughts and thank you for your time.

    Blessings,
    Heather L Nowlan
    hnowlan@gmail.com
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lawrence-J-Nowlan-Sculpture/60449375964?ref=aymt_homepage_panel

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