On May 5th, 2016, a wildfire tore through Fort McMurray with a ferocity so intense the fire was nicknamed the ‘Beast.’ Hundreds of firefighters, police and heavy equipment operators fought a running battle with a formidable foe to save the City. In the end, 80,000 people were evacuated, and 2,400 structures were incinerated.
A leadership responsibility that was once unimaginable was suddenly real.
Responsibility without authority is one of the worst situations any leader can face, and natural disasters are the epitome of responsibility without authority. In a situation such as this, someone has full responsibility to lead, but the authority belongs to Mother Nature. In the Fort McMurray Wildfire Operations Centre, people who had the moral, ethical and command responsibility to protect their community, but zero authority to impact what the ‘Beast’ would do.
What were my takeaways?
I had the privilege of working with and watching these people put herculean efforts into evacuating the residents; protecting their community; and, then planning how to get 80,000 people home.
What can you use to lead with confidence when authority is completely outside of your control?
Here are five suggestions:
1. Own the problem. Like it or not, the problem is yours so step up to the plate. Nobody asked for the fire, but they had to deal with it. That means you must publicly and privately embody the handling of the crisis and recovery.
In the days following the battle to save Fort McMurray, the Fire Chief made an emotional public statement to say that this had been the worst days of his professional life, but that the community would recover.
2. Intervene early and often. You must rely on your team, but if they fail to meet the mark, you and your organization are at risk. Insert yourself into the process deeply and irregularly, pepper managers with questions, exercise your good judgment, make changes to plans if needed, and make sure they know that you are on top of the situation.
During the response the Operations Director challenged plans relentlessly for validity and that they were the best work that could be done. This is exactly the time when measured micromanagement is required.
3. Become the face and voice of leadership. Make sure to communicate relentlessly and honestly to your people throughout the event. And you must talk straight. The reassurance of seeing a leader, taking things firmly in hand, cannot be overemphasized.
During the fire, the Premier took a steady hand on the leadership. While she relied on her experts to provide technical briefings, she communicated clearly that the Province was in charge; the situation was extremely perilous; people were to evacuate; and, everything was being done to tame the Beast and get people home.
4. Mind your messages. Think through your messaging carefully and ensure your leadership team reinforces and complements what. Urge prudent behaviour. Never blame once the crisis hits, even if someone failed to follow your advice. Be there to reassure, to solve, to support, but never to chastise or to leave folks to their own devices.
Throughout the fires, all levels of government and nongovernmental organizations spoke with one voice and message. There were few, if any, missteps. This was vital to provide confidence and clear, unambiguous messages to the evacuees.
5. Show humanity. In the same vein, it is up to the leader to show not only strength and impact but also compassion and humanity. Tell stories, honour heroes to encourage people to help one another, and then reward them for it.