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State, tribal and federal agencies use historical events to strengthen leadership

Tracy Frank
U.S. Forest Service
Group of people standing outdoors, listening to a talk during staff ride

A partnership between Arkansas Department of Agriculture – Forestry Division, Oklahoma Forestry Services and the Choctaw Nation, with participants from the U.S. Forest Service, met in Pea Ridge National Park in Arkansas to participate in a staff ride to explore a historical event and relate the lessons learned to their own organizations.

Staff rides are traditionally used by the military to help leaders learn from historical events by evaluating past decisions and relating them to present day. Instead of simply being a history lesson, a staff ride is an interactive experience that allows participants to consider their own decision-making process within the context of the highlighted historical event. “A historical event is just the background for learning,” explained Mark Morales, fire training officer with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “It leads you to see the challenges and how beneficial a strategic plan can be, the challenges of communication, and the challenges with a lack of training. The staff ride lets you see the bigger picture. It is more than just a history lesson. It’s designed to elicit responses and opportunities for improvement.”.

When meeting at Pea Ridge National Park, participants engaged in team building exercises across a collaborative interagency group. The history surrounding the Battle of Pea Ridge, which has been described as one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River, provides strong examples of strategic planning and communication. Though often reserved for senior leadership, this occasion cast a wider net with participants from various leadership levels. “The experience was really good for up-and-coming members of our organization, said Morales. “We brought along folks that we saw potential in to start bringing them up and thinking strategically to help them grow into senior leaders. There is so much emphasis on strategic planning and thinking, and to get these ways of thinking started early helps build strong future leaders.”

This staff ride helped strengthen the working relationship between these state, federal and tribal interests, by bringing together their leaders to work collaboratively through exercises. “This is just one step in the continual building of partnerships and working relationships between these agencies,” said Wesley McKinney, a fire management officer with Arkansas Forestry Division. “We are building stronger partnerships, which is a tremendous help as we get newcomers trained… “Information-sharing and working across state lines benefits all of our agencies,”

This collaboration across agencies promotes the ideas of stronger leadership, improving each agency both as partners and individually. Reaching across agency lines to offer training helps grow cohesion and builds a network of reliable working relationships. “In leadership roles, you start thinking about legacy and what you want to leave behind,” said McKinney. “We want to leave better skills and more knowledge to pass on to those next in line. The cycle of continual shared knowledge across these agencies will help build up future leaders. It is very gratifying to watch staff grow and reach their potential through these experiences. The legacy we want to leave behind is that you have to take care of folks, from any agency.”

“Even though as state, federal, and tribal agencies we have slightly different goals, we have the commonality of [wildland fire management] that brought us all together,” said Mark Morales. “Most of our training is interagency, and we work in qualifying systems together, so this gives us commonality to work together on different goals with shared experiences”