Jules LeBoeuf “Situational Awareness at Ground Level:
Active Engagement Helps Mr. LeBoeuf
Notice When He’s Off Course.”
The light aircraft lofts handily in the sky. Full throttle ahead, 120 miles an hour, and not an obstacle in sight other than a patchwork of clouds. With such perfect flying conditions, the pilot’s consciousness drifts to more obstacle-laden aspects of his life. In the flash of a second, the aircraft crashes into the side of a mountain. Something’s gone terribly wrong.
Long-time Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) forest ranger Jules LeBoeuf has logged his fair share of hours in aircraft flying over the Alberta forests without worrying too much about the above scripted scenario. The reason: pilots know that Situational Awareness (SA) is not some abstract ideal; it’s a concrete discipline that is a matter of life or death.
“Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) talks about the consequences of losing situational awareness. They’re catastrophic. Yet, in our day-to-day business on the ground, we operate without situational awareness all the time. We get to bang our heads against obstacles – and one another – and then go and get into trouble someplace else, and do it over and over again,” laughs Mr. LeBoeuf.
For those among Mr. LeBoeuf colleagues who might wonder how their sometimes irreverent comrade, schooled for 22 years in the paramilitary work of fighting wildfires, landed in a field called the Practice of Active Engagement, herein lies the answer.
“To me, Active Engagement (or Contemplative Dialogue) is really situational awareness which I believe is essential for good leadership. How can you stop doing something counterproductive if you don’t even notice you are doing it? That has been the real gift of the PCD for me – learning to notice.”
Although Mr. LeBoeuf career has taken him from the front lines of caring for Alberta’s forests, through management positions and occasionally instructing at the Hinton Training Center (a role he particularly enjoys), he says he “still regards himself as a forest ranger.” The intrepid forest ranger is currently on a two-year secondment,co-facilitating contemplative dialogue training and coaching with colleague Phyllis Woolley within the department. He is also enrolled in the AE practicum and will soon be certified as a facilitator.
Nonetheless, he considers himself something of a “closet practitioner” given that “going to talk about self-awareness and transparency to my colleagues sometimes seems tantamount to telling a hockey team that figure skating will improve its power plays.” Yet, Mr. LeBoeuf recognizes fundamentally that the PCD answers a question about leadership that had been troubling him even before he held a management position.
In 2003, then Deputy Minister of SRD, Bob Fessenden gave a copy of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great to all of his managers and Mr. LeBoeuf borrowed and read his manager’s copy. The Deputy later visited the Forest Protection Branch. After a “polite session of Q&A”, Wildfire Prevention Officer Jules LeBoeuf asked a big question that was on his mind from reading the book. “Do you think we have the guts to do this? Your vision is fantastic. But I don’t see that as our organization. I don’t even see us moving toward that.”
The DM replied with his thoughts on the business aspect of the book, but Mr. LeBoeuf was still not satisfied; he said, “There is another aspect: the human relations within the organizational system. Can you speak to that because that is the part I see missing?” Mr. Fessenden invited Phyllis Woolley to respond. Mr. LeBoeuf recalls, “The first thing she asked is, ‘what is your name?’ In my culture, the thought is immediately, ‘why do you want to know my name?’ Then another fellow spoke up, ‘Does this mean we can ask the questions we really want to ask?’ As the executive presenters departed, the staff member casually asked Ms. Woolley, ‘When are we going to see you again; what’s the next step?’”
It turned out the next step was an invitation to the outspoken pair to the Deputy Minister’s office. Says, Mr. LeBoeuf, “Well, in my culture, no good comes from that. I said to the other staff member, ‘Look, have you ever seen the movie Bambi. You don’t want to be the first one running out in the meadow here.’” Nonetheless, they forayed to the DM’s office and on to many subsequent (often surreptitious) meetings with Ms. Woolley where she introduced them to the principles and practices of Active Engagement.
The answer to Mr. LeBoeuf big question, it seems, was an enormous one that required him to take an unanticipated journey, both personal and professional. And, while the cartoon images of the adventures of “Bambi” in the office place have the elements of comedy, the serious, and even tragic aspects of our working lives lie not far underneath.
“I’ve examined my SCRs around the fear of asking questions, says Mr. LeBoeuf. “The reality is that speaking truth to power means a lot of different things to me. (SCR is an acronym for “socially constructed reality”, a system of belief we come to hold as truth which may not hold the same meaning for others.) It may mean you’re not a company man, you’re not living by the party line, you’re not a good soldier, and you’re embarrassing the office in front of others. So you had better be careful with what you say. Many of our fears are real. We fear being marginalized within our organization, being cut from the herd. We fear it so much it really affects how we work.
To ensure that our dealings with others are nonviolent, the practice of Active Engagement encourages self-reflection, particularly around our defensive and aggressive behaviors. This has led Mr. LeBoeuf to take a good look at how he uses humour. “With the use of humour, I’ve been able to go into certain territory but only so far. And then, boom, that’s about as far as you can push it. Or other times, I shut down completely. I really want to say something but I can’t and it’s left unsaid. There are dilemmas in protecting yourself and it can show itself in different ways. Humour can also cut like a knife.”
“Active Engagement can help you engage the same incidents but in a more transparent, honest and open fashion. It allows me not just to say what I need to say but to engage in a conversation with somebody that goes much further than I could ever have imagined before. It’s not easy. It’s almost like when they were experimenting with breaking the sound barrier, trying to achieve Mach 1. The contemplative practice, for me, has broken that barrier. When you are talking to someone and the conversation suddenly turns to conflict, you begin to feel like you’ve hit turbulence. As the conflict escalates you think that if only you can hang on a little longer and resist the urge to respond defensively that you will be able to get past that unstable point – if you can remain nondefensive long enough, it’s amazing what you are able to talk about. If I can get through my defenses, the authenticity that occurs between people is so pure. There’s a real connection. And people are looking back at you saying, ‘I can’t believe I just told you what I told you.’ Those are the real stories for me.”
At the heart of Active Engagement is a desire to engage with the collective spirit of groups founded upon a conviction of the unity that we share as human beings. While Mr. LeBoeuf enjoys working with the models, systems and disciplines of the PCD as well of those of authors such as Peter Senge, it is this unity that draws him to continue to deepen his practice and share it with others. He sees it as the fuel which makes strategies and models go and the ideals of full and rich exchanges realizable.
“My assumption is that we all crave the human connection. We may not admit it, we may guard against it, we may be rigid or insulate ourselves from feeling it but somewhere deep down, I believe, we all crave it,” he says.
“Engaging in the practice of Active Engagement has given me the ability to notice how and where I utilize my energy. I am no longer hemorrhaging precious energy. In fact, even with heavy workloads and particularly hectic days, I feel reenergized by the sense of freedom in choosing how I engage with people. I am no longer burdened with the self-imposed and unrealistic responsibility for the behaviour of individuals or the organization. I am now seeing what leadership looks like through a new lens and it is affording me the luxury of being fully present in all arenas of my life.”
By Deborah Witwicki