Leaders Fighting Fires: What Darby Did

Leaders Fighting Fires

It’s hard, especially if you are Canadian, to not love the way Darby Allen leads. He’s the fire chief who led the fight against out-of-control wildfires in Alberta, and the one who made a decision to evacuate Fort McMurray. During the crisis, Darby demonstrated calm leadership. As media attention ramped up, he didn’t shirk from the public eye. Most leaders will face a tense situation during their careers. You will be asked to make a decision whose consequences you cannot fully see or control. You will need people to follow you to make it work. You might not have to evacuate a city safely, but you will be required to lead in a way that will encourage followership vs sabotage.

Darby Allen has his critics – which leader does not – but there is little question that his public persona during the crisis was a model of a calm leader under pressure. In interviews afterward, we got a glimpse of the thinking behind his actions in the heat of it. To benefit from his experience, watch the CBC’s interactive story, “Battling the Beast” http://www.cbc.ca/interactives/longform/news/battling-the-beast-fort-mcmurray-wildfire

Here are a few things leaders can take away from Darby’s harrowing real-life leadership experience.

  • Bring all of you to the situation. Sometimes, under public pressure, leaders will clamp-up and become stoic and distant. They may think a leader must be tough enough to handle anything. Certainly, Darby Allen, and the brave people who work alongside him, are tough – firefighting is an embodiment of physical bravery. Yet, he was often described as “fighting back tears” by his interviewers. You could see he was totally, personally affected. His ability to show rational and objective thinking, while staying connected to his heart and “gut”, increased his effectiveness and the trust people put in him. So when the situation is tough, you be tough and be soft. Use your head, use your heart and trust your gut.
  • Depend on others for information. Darby was pulling in experts and others as the crisis unfolded. You will see lots of examples where Darby kept reaching out, adding to his own technical know-how and experience. He says “information is everything” and he kept sourcing information to make decisions he would be more confident about. He didn’t rush to ignore conflicting opinions and data. He took it all under consideration.
  • Stay open-minded. There was a time, when Darby and his team were figuring out how to evacuate the city safely, when a creative suggestion was made. Darby says he initially thought it was a bad idea – and then he thought it was genius. Be willing to listen to all ideas and don’t dismiss them too readily. At least be ready to change your mind, and don’t cling to your original assessment out of stubbornness.
  • Give credit to others, but shoulder any blame. What’s loveable about Darby is his humility in the spotlight. Darby pointed again and again to the people working “on the ground” and insisted that they were the real heroes. He is quick to credit his team – and the citizens – for doing things well. When people questioned his judgment, Darby didn’t blame his advisors. He took responsibility for doing his job, acknowledging his imperfections.
  • Take a break. After the immediate crisis, and after days without sleep, Darby took a break from the spotlight to rest with his family. He trusted others to handle things when he needed to rest. Every leader needs to know that self-care is as important to sustainability as caring for others.

One thought on “Leaders Fighting Fires: What Darby Did


  1. Hi Jill,
    I just read two of your recent blogs/articles (change, leadership) … man, I just love your way of pulling out the underbelly of things and your ability to do so through turns of phrase and an amazing way with words that reminds me so well of great novel writers that can somehow take you right into an experience and you can relate as though the writer were inside your skull, truly an impressive skill! Going to read more … 🙂 C

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