Sharon’ s Take on Cindy’s Paper RE Forest Service Leadership


I think this is an important topic to discuss. I certainly can’t force people to discuss it. BUT I can repeatedly post things and ask people their opinions.

Here are my hypotheses for why no discussion thus far (except Mike and Larry, thank you!)

1) People in the FS are afraid of posting their concerns publicly. Based on my pre-retirement experience, that is a well-founded fear. So..
2) Recent retirees, and observers, need to have the conversation, IMHO.
3) Retirees don’t want to be seen as criticizing the current people; they would not have wanted to have been criticized by their predecessors (well, and sometimes were, but that’s another story). And there’s the whole “we might want to ask a favor sometime, so we don’t want to tick them off.” That cultural paradigm doesn’t go away just because we retired.
4) Lack of “straight talk” was one of Dialogos’s findings as I recall.

I know that I often disagree with Cindy, with other FS people, and with just about anybody on just about anything. Yet I think we are each richer for having shared our opinions. And I don’t think the FS can improve by “not talking about it” or the ever-popular strategy “complaining behind people’s backs.”

5) So I think we might do better, rather than critiquing Cindy’s paper per se, reflect our own perspective of the FS and what it might do better in terms of morale and leadership.

I look at this like the old story of the blind man and the elephant. Perhaps if we describe the toenail, tail hairs or saliva that we have experienced, we will jointly be able to describe this unique creature, the Forest Service.

To that end, this is Sharon’s perspective. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a discussion. I’d like to focus, as Cindy did, on the National Forest System.

I think, like Cindy did, that one’s background is significant. Most recently, I was the Director of Planning for seven years in the Rocky Mountain Region. To that end, I participated in regional personnel reviews of placements of line and staff officers, and because I was in planning, and troubled projects of various kinds made their way to our office, I got to see disagreements between line officers, and problems between forest staff and district staff, in fact all possible permutations of Ways Things Can Go Wrong. My experience was very different from the 80’s when I worked on forests in Regions 5 and 6.

Here are several thoughts:
1) I’m not sure you can say anything about “the Forest Service”. Different regions have different cultures, as do forests.
2) In my region, “compliance” was sometimes perhaps more like “apparent compliance.” Which is not really compliance at all. On one bus ride back from a Regional Leadership Team, I asked a Deputy Forest Supervisor why they didn’t warn us about things until it was too late. He wisely noted that the Districts don’t necessarily tell the Supervisor’s Office either.
3) Some Forest Supervisors didn’t think that the Regional Forester had legitimate authority to override their land management decisions. According to what I call the “Cult of the Line Officer” the local official is always right. So if you defend your Ranger, and you are the Supervisor, that is good. If you are Regional Forester and you defend your Forest Supervisor, you are good. But if you disagree with the next level down and try to change it, you are losing points with them at an extremely rapid rate. Now, my experience may have to do with the personalities involved, but I just think the real world is much more complex and colorful than the organizational theories- and may be a function of… the personalities involved!
4) I think perhaps we could learn about the culture more by telling our stories and discussing what they mean, and whether others’ observations are similar or different.
5) When I read the below paragraph…

This position power model could further illuminate the conflict between staff and decisionmaker goals found in recent NEPA studies (Stern and Predmore 2011) as well as employees’ growing critique of leadership in the Partnership for Public Service and other surveys. It could explain recent burdensome business procedures handed down by managers who treat each new societal mandate (a set of rules to enforce new society priorities such as civil rights or homeland security) as not only a new rule but a new priority. Overemphasis on line officers’ careers, adherence to rules for their own sake, and the resulting impact on staff effectiveness might contribute to other Forest Service–acknowledged problems such as ineffective and process-heavy NEPA analysis (Bosworth 2001).

I have listened to line officers complain about the new Dilbertian requirements of the Department or the whole USG. It really isn’t the FS who makes most of these decisions, in my experience. Just attend a District Rangers’ Meeting to get the FS line officer perspective.

6) Finally, I think if you want to know what causes the morale problem, you would have to ask people directly in interviews. Then you would have to figure out what could be changed, within the decision space of the FS . I am all for doing this as a public discussion.

It doesn’t seem fair to me to blame “FS leadership” for ideas of the Department or higher levels. If we wanted to experiment with FS leadership, we would move them to the Department of the Interior (controlling for the “Department and higher ideas” variable) and then comparing them to the BLM (which has the same multiple use mission). Just sayin’

4 thoughts on “Sharon’ s Take on Cindy’s Paper RE Forest Service Leadership”

  1. I agree that one has to look at the personalities involved. A system operates differently with different players, though the system’s principles and structure are the same. IMHO, ego has a lot to do with any perceived or realized conflict between line and staff (though, staff has its own ego problems to address). Learning that you are part of a TEAM and not an individual decision making entity is a hard lesson for some of us in leadership positions.

  2. I think you have touched upon something significant..

    I observed behaviors that did not follow from the idea of the National Leadership Council (or national leaders) being the “first team”. Here’s a link to some of these organizational ideas.

    I would say that some egos prefer their “first team” to be the one where they are the head and not the Chief or the next level up. People can actually say pretty negative things about the next level up and that’s considered to be really OK (just the way we do things).

    I remember a district in Region X that was doing CE abuse.putting the whole FS at risk of losing the CE, not to speak of respect, when I worked in DC. I asked the RO “can’t the RF talk to the Supervisor and get him to tell the Ranger to stop?” and the answer was “no.” I ran it up the organizational flagpole and it probably diffused into the “line vs. staff”-o-sphere.

    Either the communication channels were clogged so that the info never got to the RF, or it was worth the risk to the FS to not tick off someone within the Region.

    It would be interesting to hear from the organizational development folks who have worked with the Forest Service. They seem like very smart people, and they have seen a lot of interesting behavior. Unfortunately, they can’t talk about their perceptions. Bummer.

  3. I’ve been in the same non-management position in the FS for 30 years, and I’ve seen management and leaders come and go. One of my thoughts is that the leadership has become less in touch with the ground and more emphasis for being politically correct. Process and analysis is emphasized over on-the-ground results.

  4. I read the paper after you first mentioned it here and I mostly agree with Cindy. However, I can’t say that I really learned anything new from the paper, terminology aside.

    If I were in charge of making the FS better I would start with information organization and presentation. Employees, the public, and the agency suffer in the current chaos.


Leave a Comment