Experience is the Father of Wisdom

Director of Field Operations David Burke reflects on bringing decades of disaster relief experience together for a week-long training event in Santa Fe.

In the last few years, Team Rubicon has seen incredible growth in almost every way: volunteer base, operational capabilities, organizational capacity, and our full-time team. Growth, especially on the scale we’ve experienced, requires decentralization, and we’ve been successful decentralizing a lot of what we do. But, one part of this process has worried me for the last 12-18 months. Our operational culture – leadership style, judgment, and decision-making. A week in Santa Fe, NM has alleviated nearly all my concerns. 

Last week, we conducted our first Team Rubicon Incident Management Team (IMT) training. This isn’t a traditional All Hazards IMT – it won’t be activated to fight fires or lead the clean up of an oil spill…not yet anyway. 

The focus for the TR IMT will be to train and mentor our field leaders to scale a consistent operational culture. They’ll be technically and tactically proficient in all aspects of our operational procedures, which is key to train field leaders, maintain consistency, and continue to improve operational effectiveness. More importantly, they’ll be responsible for cultivating leadership style, developing judgment, and guiding decision-making. 

Decades of disaster relief experience convened in Santa Fe for a week.

Decades of disaster relief experience convened in Santa Fe for a week.

So what about last week was such a relief?

It actually began with some anxiety. We kicked off at the Santa Fe Mountain Center standing in a circle as we made introductions. This was an impressive group: Battalion Fire Chiefs, Police Chiefs, Coast Guard Master Chief, Federal Investigators, media specialists, police and fire special operations leaders, Airmen (and woman), Marines, Soldiers, and a Sailor. Leading this group is a lot of responsibility, even with Vince Moffitt, our Incident Management Team Chief, taking lead on the overall course development and delivery.

Vince let the Mountain Center staff know our team varied from late twenties to several retired participants. Our facilitators said they weren’t sure what to expect, but they were relieved no one showed up with a walker. Needless to say, this led to a few jokes. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the TR culture, it’s that we try not to take ourselves too seriously, but I knew day one and two were going to determine the success or failure of this course – day one would help break the ice and form the team; day two Vince and I would cover the IMT concept, organizational evolution, and the leadership style we hope to see. 

Day one was awesome – it took down all the walls, got the whole group on the same level, and prepped everyone to work through some tough discussions on hard and soft skills. 

Day two – the make or break day. We dove into course expectations and set the stage for the rest of the week. We stated a few things right up front: we’re not here to teach leadership or change your style, as some of you may have already forgotten more than I know; you’re here to help guide and design this program, we need your feedback; and everyone in this room will take a leadership role this week and in the future, we need to support each other.


Participants discussed hard and soft skills and pulled in lessons learned from their time spent supporting TR operations.

This was our big picture, amorphous, soft skills day. Every section of every briefing generated great discussion and moved in the direction of everything we were hoping to see from this team. From IMT concept to organizational evolution, cultural and operational principles, we facilitated a great group of leaders through a discussion that met and even exceeded our expectations every step of the way.

Leadership philosophy was up next. I kicked it off with some humor: “Look guys, it would be arrogant and a bit delusional for me to get up here and teach you leadership. There are hundreds of years of leadership experience in this room…” Participants reacted with some boos and the AARP quips were resurrected, but the reality was there really were well over 250 years of experience in the room! This team of 18 was selected because of this experience, the perspective they bring, and the demonstrated temperament and attitude they’ve displayed during their involvement with Team Rubicon.

Days three and four were deep-dives into technical and tactical systems, structures, and processes. Members of the class stepped up and delivered on their functional expertise in order to cross-train the rest of the class, Information Technology Disaster Relief Center and Palantir Technologies came in and led sessions on their capabilities and where they fit in Team Rubicon’s mission. The sessions were great, the class was active, and helped to improve the curriculum.


Region 7 Administrator Carol McCoy and Minnesota Planning Coordinator Dave Korus tackle PIO training with the communications team.

Day five we ran two exercises that provided several opportunities for us to test comprehension, attitude, and temperament, and provided the opportunity for the students to learn from and react to realistic scenarios. The exercises were developed to draw from every other discussion we had throughout the week. Participants took every scenario, every role-play, seriously, we had difficult and honest conversations this day and throughout the week. We talked through what was expected, whether this realistically prepares the team to train and mentor, and how we did overall.

The focus for the TR IMT will be to train and mentor our field leaders to scale a consistent operational culture. This will happen through on-scene and remote training and mentoring. It’s in its infancy and stands to scale our ability to deliver our mission effectively. It isn’t an All Hazards IMT. After the completion of this training, the participants are eligible to apply for a spot on the team.

Team Rubicon’s growth and effectiveness wouldn’t be possible without the support of multiple partners, including the Walmart Foundation who made this week-long training opportunity possible.

If you’re interested, get involved, work your way through the pre-requisites, and volunteer for leadership roles on operations. We plan to deliver this training at least twice a year to TR members who meet these requirements and demonstrate the style and approach we’re looking for in leadership roles on TR operations.

Read More Stories