4 leadership lessons from the Donner Party

Information gathering and effective leadership places a huge role in uniting around a common goal


Why do some groups succeed and others fail when faced with dire or life threatening circumstances? Some valuable lessons can be drawn from historical examples.

Most Americans learned about the Donner Party in school. This group of 87 emigrants to California was stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains when traveling across country in the fall of 1846. The group consisted of men, women and children who hoped to start a new life on the Pacific Coast. But things did not go as they planned.

Of the 87 members who began the journey, only 46 survived the winter. Most died of starvation, but some were murdered, and many of the dead were cannibalized by their traveling companions.

The circumstances that led to the Donner Party's tragic outcome provide some key lessons for anyone who must manage groups that are facing difficult situations, including fire officers. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
The circumstances that led to the Donner Party's tragic outcome provide some key lessons for anyone who must manage groups that are facing difficult situations, including fire officers. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

The circumstances that led to this tragic outcome provide some key lessons for anyone who must manage groups that are facing difficult situations, including fire officers.

Lesson No. 1: Learn as much as you can

Gather as much data and information as possible before making critical decisions. The Donner Party had a choice of routes to take to California, but they relied almost entirely on a single source of information, a book entitled “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California” by Lansford Warren Hastings. This book recommended a shortcut from the normal route, the so-called Hastings Cutoff. But there were many sources that expressed doubt about this little-used route, sources that the Donner Party did not fully consider before making their fateful decision on which route to take. The fact that this route was chosen led to delays and hardships that were predictive of what was to come.

The best leaders seek out as many types of information as possible, even from contradictory sources, before committing to a plan. However, information will always be incomplete, and time constraints force decisions to be made without full knowledge of potential outcomes.

Lesson No. 2: Read and digest information from all sources

Given this reality, it is even more important for leaders to fully understand and use the information they do have, and not just look to it as a way of confirming a decision already made. The Donner Party chose to rely almost entirely on the optimistic predictions of Hastings’ book, but did not heed the warning in that same book that “Unless you pass over the mountains early in the fall, you are very liable to be detained by impassable mountains of snow until the next spring, or perhaps, forever.”

Lesson No. 3: Know who your leaders are

Poor information was a critical factor in the failure of the Donner Party. The other was inadequate leadership and lack of group cohesion. Keeping people together and focused on common purpose often makes the difference between life and death for groups in crisis.

The Donner Party had an official leader, but he was just one of a series of men who had been elected to lead the party since their departure the previous spring. Leaders and group members came and went over the months, and the core of the group was made up of extended families whose only sense of common purpose with others was getting to California, where they would go their separate ways. This lack of cohesion was a critical factor in the chaos and barbarity that resulted when times got really tough.

Most firefighters can tell stories of bad experiences that resulted from poor or absent leadership, and especially from a lack of common purpose with those working alongside them. Consider the rivalries and even physical violence that have occurred between different fire departments responding to an emergency scene, or conflicts that arise between agencies.

Lesson No. 4: A common mission is crucial for uniting the group

You cannot create that sense of purpose when you most need it. A common mission and feeling of interdependency must be cultivated in good times if you want it to survive in bad ones.

The Donner Party was a group of decent people who all had their own reasons for traveling across country to start a new life. They had high expectations, based partly on faulty or absent information, about what they might face en route. Once hardships began, the group tended to splinter along factional or family lines, rather than always looking to the welfare of the group as a whole. Leadership was inadequate and ineffective, and decisions were not made in consideration of all members. Finally, the size of the group made effective leadership nearly impossible under the circumstances.

These are valuable lessons for fire service leaders to keep in mind. Remember the importance of span of control. Gather as much information as possible and fully use the information you have in order to make the best decisions. And most importantly, work to build a sense of team mission and purpose all the time, and it will likely be there when you need it most.

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