There was an orange glow in the distance. I had a USGS topographical map but my instructions were to point the aging Peterbilt tractor towards the orange in the sky and proceed. First on highway then on narrowing two-lane which eventually becomes gravel, and ultimately turns into a recently cut one-lane, unpaved. The crews who welcomed me were dirty, tired, and hungry. Two trailers of food, sleeping bags and other firefighter supplies were left at camp and I headed back to civilization to pick-up another two. There was always a fire season in California’s mountains and the related work paid for another year of college. It was an honor to serve the people who risked their lives to protect mountain communities and the people who lived in them.
Leadership failures get people killed in this line of work.
The Mann Gulch Fire, 1949
Twenty-four years earlier, the Mann Gulch fire in Montana was such a fire and 13 men died as a result of leadership failures. On a motorcycle trip a few years ago I stopped at a fire camp and had a chat with the camp commander. Mentioning the Mann Gulch fire, he confirmed that the learning from that tragedy became a standard component of training leaders and crew members in the US Forest Service. While the reality of life and death on the fire line is a different sort of urgency from that in business, there is some learning for business leaders.
The team was newly configured and included WWll veterans and college forestry students, all rugged men. They were trained fire jumpers, knew the tools of the trade, and new how to do their jobs. What they didn’t know was each other or their boss.
Their boss, Wagner Dodge, was a strong, silent type of guy who was a veteran wild fire fighter and foreman. He was a man of few words who figured the crew were good men who would follow rules and do as they were told. But the men on the team didn’t know or trust their leader. There was minimal communication other than orders. The crew parachuted into Mann Gulch at 4:10pm on August 5, 1949. Only three men survived the following two hours.
The fire had changed direction and trapped the crew. Foreman Dodge did something the others did not understand. Amidst the fire engulfing them, he started a fire in the two-and-a-half-foot tall bunch grass in the canyon and told the crew to lay down in the hot ashes from the burnt grass. He was the only one to do so. He was also one of only three men to survive. The official report listed 5:56 p.m. as the time of death for thirteen firefighters.
The Collapse of Sense Making in Organizations – The Mann Gulch Disaster
The Collapse of Sense Making in Organizations – The Mann Gulch Disaster is a comprehensive study of the tragedy in the context of organizational psychology and leadership. The learning is pertinent to teams in organizations regardless of the level of risk: when the fire jumped the canyon, and trapped them they had no framework of history, structure or trust and thus defaulted to their individual resources. Their social ties were weak due to their newness and lack of team structure. “When social ties deteriorate, people try harder to make their own individual sense of what is happening.” The wisdom and best thinking of colleagues is lost.
Researchers suggest that the lack of emotional ties between crew members limited the ability to keep panic under control. Foreman Dodge did something counter intuitive: he started a fire in the middle of fire all around him. “Closer ties permit clearer thinking which enables people to find paths around obstacles.”
Here’s What Leaders Can Learn From The Mann Gulch Fire
- Leaders need more than technical knowledge. Forman Wagner Dodge’s ability to lead was assumed by his superiors because of this extreme level of technical knowledge. He did his best and he took the right technical action. It wasn’t enough.
- Trust in a leader requires getting to know that person. It was assumed that the crew would trust him because of his position and superior technical knowledge. They did not because they didn’t know him and thus did not know they could trust him.
- Unity can’t be commanded, it must be created. The crew did not know him and he did not know them, he made no effort to do so. Clarity and unity are essential to an effective team – crisis or not.
- Build a sustainable team structure within your organization. The only team structure was the hierarchical structure of boss and subordinate. There was no structure as to how the team operates other than to do as told by the boss and when it mattered most they did not do so.
- Social and emotional connections shouldn’t be overlooked. When the situation stopped making sense, panic and chaos took over and there were no strong emotional and personal connections between crew members to stabilize the group in the emergency. Eating and drinking together, winning together, surviving crisis together all serve to build social and emotional connections where people will be more likely to depend on each other in emergency.
There were some attempts by Forest Service bosses to obscure the facts and an initial attempt to blame the crew for not following Dodge’s order to lay down in the ashes of the fire he created. When the switch was flipped from protectionism to learning, positive changes were made that vastly improved the training of leaders and the safety of all on the fire lines.
Fighting wildfires is a dangerous business. While Seattleites complain about the smoke, thousands of courageous men and women are now on the fire line throughout the west. Including British Columbia. There are currently 65 active fires in the western US and 140 in British Columbia. I wish these people a safe return to their family and friends.
Image courtesy of Pexels.com.