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Leadership and teamwork in tough times: An interview with Darby Allen

Darby Allen was the regional fire chief when the catastrophic Albertan wildfires swept through Fort McMurray in 2016. He oversaw Canada’s largest evacuation ever — of 88,000 people — with no loss of life. CSAE sat down with him to talk about compassionate leadership during times of crisis.

Q: Leading the fight against the Fort Mac fires must have been a difficult and complex experience, with a large emotional aspect.  What role did emotions play in how you dealt with that crisis?

A: Certainly emotions were high for all members of the emergency services. This was our town, and it was being taken over by a fire that was very difficult to defend against. For me, personally, I tried very hard to base my decisions on fact, and the pros and cons of the situation. That is a lot easier said than done. The evacuation on the third of May was completely emotionally draining for me personally. I wanted to do my very best for the people but I was terrified it might not turn out well and many could have perished. At times, it was difficult to function and remain focused because of that worry.

Q: Teams can fall apart during a crisis. In your experience, how do you think leaders can best manage stress and conflicts to keep the team moving forward together?

A: I think it is vitally important to keep the team focused and enable them to move forward together. It’s also extremely important for the leader to be calm and focused, even though you may be troubled inside. Where possible, I continually met with staff and told them what an outstanding job they were doing — many pats on the back and lots of hugs. Of course the work is stressful and there may be some conflict, but the most important thing for me in managing that stress is trust. Trust wholeheartedly in the people you work with. Believe in them and let them do their jobs. They in turn will trust you. That two-way trust relationship is the key.

Premier Rachel Notley, Minister of Municipal Affairs Danielle Larivee, and Darby Allen, Director of Emergency Management and Fire Chief, Regional Emergency Operations Centre, see for themselves the wildfire devastation in the neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray Monday, May 9, 2016. (photograph by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta).

Q: You worked with a large team of volunteers and first responders while working on the operation. How did you deal with such a large pool of transient workers?

A: To be honest, I didn’t really think about it too much, they were all team members as far as I was concerned. Up to the Provincial State of Emergency on day four, we had all local help, and I knew most of the players. When the province came to help, I didn’t know most of the staff. I established strong relationships early with the leadership group. I trusted the couple I did know completely, and I interacted with them primarily, which helped me immensely. I spent as much time as I could personally visiting with teams and telling them they were doing a wonderful job. I only wish I could have met them all and shook their hands.

Q: Even though the operation was lauded as a huge success, with no loss of life despite the magnitude of the fire, is there anything you would have gone back and done differently?

A: When Task Force Two arrived in town, sent by the province to assist, there were many staff of different skills and, of course, many were fire department members. We had a short meeting on their arrival, and allocated them locations to relieve local firefighting staff who were physically shattered. We did not communicate this transfer well to our local staff and there was some initial conflict with that changeover. They didn’t want to be relieved, they had great ownership in their task, and I completely underestimated that human spirit within them. That is the one thing I would change, because my staff deserved better, they had been amazing and I felt I, and we let them down with that changeover.

Q: Tell me about the role that compassion plays in your approach to leadership.  Can leaders cultivate compassion within themselves?

A: For me, compassion is a huge part of leadership. It translates to me about caring for people and that is something I strived to do in all stages of my management career. Generally, I believe you cannot teach compassion, or a caring nature, or a desire to help people in their time of need. You develop those traits as a person, from your upbringing and from your experiences in life. A leader can attempt to be more compassionate, and it may work on occasion, but I do believe they will always revert to their true self, especially in times of stress.

Q: When resolving on a course of action as a leader what have you found to be the best approach to dealing with dissent and disagreements that may come from those under and above you?

A: The answer is different for what I term “normal leadership” and “crisis leadership.” However, I would say I have had very little experience with dissent. In normal mode, I would enter into discussion, on a repeated basis if necessary and try my very best to convince the person this is really the best course of action for me and them. I would try to find something that was a buy-in for them and sell that feature. In crisis leadership, you simply don’t have the time. During the wildfire I got informed that an organisation within the Regional Emergency Operations Centre was going against a direction I had given. I immediately met with the boss of that group and I asked him if the rumour was true, it was. I told him his direction would stop forthwith, and he would never go against my direction ever again. He complied, so that seemed to work just fine!

Q: You became the hero in the eyes of many in Fort Mac. What has this meant to you? Can you comment on how that label may have impacted you in your personal and/or professional life?

A: Firstly, I still don’t associate with that “H word” — I had a job to do, and I did that to the very best of my ability. Having said that I truly appreciate all the wonderful things that people have said about me. It’s hard for me to put into words what the people of Fort McMurray meant to me, they really are so special and wonderful. They were brave, caring and so thoughtful to others. Even people who lost their homes thanked me for all our efforts. That is an incredibly humbling experience. I do not believe the label impacted my personal life at all, but it has perhaps enhanced the desire for people to come and listen to me speak, for which I am very grateful.

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