12 Fundamentals of Effective Leadership: Guest Post by Steve Ellis

Steve Ellis in the field with Sally Jewell and Idaho Senator Mike Crapo in 2016



Steve Ellis wrote this piece for our own Steve Wilent’s Natural Resource Management Today.  Here’s the link. It’s on page 18. 

I thought it might open up an opportunity for an interesting discussion.  Do you agree with these? Do you have others to add?  Do you have stories you’d like to share about experiences good and bad? Lessons learned? Aspects that remain puzzling?

12 Fundamentals of Effective Leadership

By Steve Ellis

I have watched various leaders and leader­ ship styles during a federal natural resource career that spanned almost four decades. During this time, I also observed how em­ployees and the public responded to different  styles  of agency career  leadership.  I recently made a list of what is hopefully useful advice for others who strive to be successful leaders within agencies, companies, nonprofits , and other organizations. It is based on my observations and experi­ence in working for both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management at many levels of tl1e organization, in both the field and Washington, D.C. This list is not in­tended to be in priority order as they are all fundamentally important. The list could reasonably be longer, but I decided to limit it to  12.

  1. Be ethical. To me this includes prin­ciples of sound natural resource management as well as integrity, honesty, and fairness. They are all key to being a true natural resource professional. I think most people know what is right and what is wrong regarding conduct, and what is lawful and what isn’t. An effective leader leads by ex­ample and encourages the professional and personal development of fellow employees and colleagues.  Together, you will help build a positive image of your organization internally and with the people they serve.
  2. Routinely communicate with em­ployees and be truthful. If there are still unknowns, tell them as such.
  3. Be honest with employees, your or­ganization’s partners, and the public. Give reasons for the decisions you make.  Employees and the public have the capability to figure things out and trying to mislead them has the potential of reducing your credibility.
  4. Treat employees with respect, re­gardless of where they work in an organization. I always watched how leaders treat people regardless of their status in the or­ganization. When I checked references  be­fore hiring an individual into a leadership position, I always looked down as well as up.  By that I mean ask people who worked for and were subordinate to the candidate what they saw as the individual’s strengths and weaknesses.  Good leaders evolve from good followers.
  5. None of us are irreplaceable.  If  you think you are, get over yourself It’s not about you, but about your team working together to accomplish the organization’s mission. Everyone has a key responsibility in getting the job done, regardless of their ability and where they work in the organization.
  6. Strive for having people in your workforce with a positive attitude. If a per­son has a positive attitude, they can generally learn or acquire skills they are deficient in. I always placed an emphasis on attitude when hiring people.  Negativity can  poison a work environment. Deal with issues involving performance and conduct as promptly as the system permits. Make sure to follow approved procedures in addressing such matters.  Avoid letting emotions or political pressure trip you up in the process. If you want an inappropriate conduct or adverse personnel action to legally stick, document it every step of the way and follow the procedures and  process.
  7.  Recognize that people have different skills and abilities. Work to find the best fit for an individual, one that that brings out their strengths.
  8.  Always watch for potential diamonds in the rough. I have seen unassuming employees blossom into becoming terrific leaders, given the opportunity. I would also always watch for the introverts who may not be the first to speak up, but may have tremendously valuable input and ideas.
  9. You are always being watched, so set a good example. Your actions and the words you say matter.
  10.  Stay calm in a crisis. Others will be watching and your behavior and response in a crisis will affect their reaction.  Don’t act as if your hair is on fire. Being calm and collected also helps you think more clearly. My experience working on complex wild­ fires helped me with this.  I vividly remem­ber the day when gunfire rang out just out side our office building and several anxious employees scurried into my office, visibly alarmed about an active shooter who had tragically shot someone in the employee parking lot  and was now on the bottom floor of our 3-story building. As a group, we quickly secured the upper two floors to deny the individual access to our work areas. I was impressed with how composed employees were in such a pressing situa­tion. The gunman was apprehended by local law enforcement before he could harm anyone else.
  11. Some people feel powerful behind a keyboard. My best advice is to be careful what you put in an email or text message. It’s a “paper” trail that reflects on you and can easily be shared. Think before you click on the send button.
  12. Always remember that it is your career colleagues who will carry you through­ out your career, so maintaining a good rapport with them is important. Within agencies, political appointees come and go with elections, but for the most part your career colleagues remain.  This career camaraderie can even carry and maintain its relevance into retirement. Also, it’s helpful to be a member of, and active in, professional societies. Positive relationships with colleagues in your field of expertise benefits your organization and contrib­utes to your personal development and continuing education.

Steve Ellis’s federal career spanned 38-years and included 14-months as a Congressional Fellow in the U.S. Senate. He held leadership positions with both the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) . He retired as deputy director of operations, BLM’s senior career position in Washington, D.C., in December 2016. He is chair of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. He holds a bachelor’s degree in forestry and a masters in geographic and atmospher­ic science.

6 thoughts on “12 Fundamentals of Effective Leadership: Guest Post by Steve Ellis”

  1. As for me, I spent most of my career honing my “followership”, still here are a few experiences .

    When I worked in a staff called RPA, our boss for a while was Rhey Solomon. We would get direction to do one thing and then do something else coming from above. We complained. He would always give us five or ten minutes to complain, and then we went on about whatever it was. I always thought that that was a great approach on his part. He knew what annoyed each of us and yet didn’t let us go down a complaining rabbit hole.

    To build on what Steve said, when I worked in WO Research and Development, Sally Collins came in to talk to us about career advancement. Many of us were not really mobile, so career advancement was more of a philosophical construct. Still she said something that stuck with me “leaders need to be self-aware, in that when I ask others about you, you should be able to know what they think about you.” I tried asking people after that what they thought about my work, but I didn’t think they were necessarily being honest because they might offend me. Which makes total sense, because FS memories/gossip networks have a long memory. So it seemed difficult to intuit what other people really thought.

    Finally, one thing about FS culture that I never quite got was the idea that we were supposed to take up our issues directly with the person before we went to their boss. And yet, it kept happening that my boss would call me in and say “Forest Supe X says that you aren’t ..” and I’d say “but Forest Supe X never talked to me about it, and I thought we were supposed to go to the person we have a problem with first.” So it seemed like there was a kind of gossip network, where it was OK to complain behind the backs of some people but not others. I must admit I never really caught on to that.

  2. When I was a Temporary Employee, a number of us started calling ourselves “Disposables”, because of some peoples’ opinions of Temps in their organizations. At the time we coined it, we made sure that our current bosses knew we liked how we were currently treated. We did imply that most of us had been treated badly, in past experiences. We just wanted leadership to see the realities of what happens to highly-qualified Temporary Employees. We did want our nickname to make the Permanents just a little less comfortable in how the Agency treats us. We were partially successful in doing that.

    In the end, the District Ranger told us to “get on with our lives. There will be no opportunities here.” He was being truthful, but his message was not well-received.

    • RSM, I’d really like to get a discussion going on this.. can you be more specific? And who counts as “leadership” in your definition? Are you saying “most” line officers for example, you have run into, have ethical issues around.. employee conduct, integrity, honesty.. who exactly and what exactly?

  3. I am pleased to read Steve’s down to earth advice on leadership. To good leaders, what Steve has written is common sense. But for early career scientists, who aspire to higher levels in organisations, the 12 items that Steve has contributed are sound advice.
    We are all here for a limited time, so if we wish to make a difference in our chosen profession, we must do it with humility and a strong conscience that we need others to help us improve our performance. ‘We’ and ‘Us’ always outperform ‘I’.


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