In 1949, 13 firefighters died at the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana. A number of factors contributed to the tragic loss of life that day, as documented in Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire and other sources.
One of the key components of that day's outcome was a breakdown in the leadership of crew boss R. Wagner Dodge.
Wag Dodge was an experienced firefighter who was working that day with a less-experienced crew who had for the most part not worked together before. By all accounts, Mr. Dodge was a man of few words who had done little to create a sense of team cohesion among his crew.
On Aug. 5, 1949, he did several things that contributed to confusion among the firefighters, and thus made his leadership ineffective under critical conditions.
The first thing Mr. Dodge did was to separate himself from his crew to scout the fire. During this time, he also sat down to eat a meal.
The crew may have assumed from this action that their leader found the fire to be routine. The group also dispersed during this period of time.
However, as Mr. Dodge was finishing eating, he noticed a change in the fire conditions that alarmed him. He rejoined his crew and ordered them to drop their tools and run for it.
This order must have greatly confused his crew, since just a short time earlier, they had seen their leader casually eating supper. And abandoning tools made no sense at all. What is a firefighter without tools?
Lack of trust
The next action by Mr. Dodge must have led the crew to think their leader had completely lost his mind. Mr. Dodge, realizing from experience that they probably would not be able to outrun the fire, took out a match and ignited the grass beneath his feet. He then lay down in the burnt grass, and called for his crew to join him.
But not a single one did. Ultimately, the rescue fire that Wag Dodge lit saved his life, but only two others on the crew survived that day, and primarily by luck. Thirteen men perished.
Why didn't Wag Dodge's crew follow him, and thus save their own lives in a critical situation? A big factor in the failure of leadership that day was a loss of credibility, of simply not making sense.
Two significant factors affected the outcome at Mann Gulch: the failure to communicate, and a lack of trust in leadership. Wag Dodge did not do anything wrong from a tactical standpoint; in fact, his instinctive decision to light a rescue fire was in many ways brilliant, and saved his own life.
But Mr. Dodge did not understand that leadership is about much more than technical competency. Your followers must also trust you, and you must be able to communicate effectively through rapidly changing circumstances.
Trust and communication are both things that must be developed long before they are needed in a critical situation.
Had Wag Dodge known his crew better, had he spent more time developing relationships with them, they might have understood that his sudden changes in course that day were the result of an experienced and intuitive firefighter seeing things they could not see. They would have been much more likely to follow him unconditionally in that case, and that trust could have saved lives.
Some officers want to think that the position alone will motivate others to follow them, and it does, but only to a point. Ultimately, what is being asked must make sense or crew members may start to make their own decisions.
This can be disastrous in truly critical situations like Mann Gulch, but it is a problem in day-to-day operations as well.
I remember many years ago driving for an officer who was notoriously autocratic and uncommunicative. He was also not the best with knowing his streets, and I had seen him make mistakes with addresses on more than one occasion.
So one day when we were responding to a fire and he told me to turn on the wrong street, I did not turn. I knew where I was going, but what I did not know was that he had a good reason for wanting to turn on the other street.
His lack of clarity in communication led to my bad decision, and a delay in arriving where we needed to be.
Leaders must be aware that those they work with are constantly making sense of what they see and hear. Effective leaders do the groundwork to create good communication before they might need it in a critical situation. And they never lose sight of the fact that leadership depends on a coherent message that makes sense.
About the author
Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For the past 10 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.
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