Dedicated to all the firefighters battling the blazes in the West, and the 14 Prineville Hotshots (memorialized in our city park) who lost their lives fighting the Colorado Storm King fire in 1994.

We are building a log home near Prineville, 7 miles away from a 4,000-acre fire that started in mid-August in Oregon’s Ochoco Forest. We were never in danger but had many smokey days. The fire is 100% contained but as of a few days ago, in Oregon alone, nearly one million acres were burning. The devastation and loss of lives is heartbreaking.

I feel great pride and respect for the “hot shot” teams of firefighters who courageously battle these fires. We are only dealing with thick smoke. They courageously engage the infernos.

My concern sent me back to an article I love. It is a 1992 HBR article by Karl Weick “Prepare Your Leaders to Fight Fires” based on a book by Norman McClean (Young Men and Fire). It tells a short story about the harrowing 1949 experience of a group of smoke-jumpers in the Montana Mann Gulch firefight.

It lays out Karl Weick’s masterful dissection of the story of fighting a real fire that explains how small temporary teams working in fast-moving unpredictable times (where much important work was being done even before COVID) can foul up even if team members are smart, experienced, and arduously committed to getting results. Karl uses the story to dig out fascinating lessons relevant for leaders fighting figurative fires today.

Put yourself in the firefighters’ boots:

The story unfolds as a group of firefighters who did not know each other, or their leaders, parachuted into a fire that perilously changed directions creating a life-threatening crisis.

Imagine what it felt like:

“When the noise created by wind, flames and exploding trees is deafening and the temperature is approaching a lethal 140 degrees, and when relative strangers who ‘love the universe but are not intimidated by it’ are strung out in a line, people can neither confer with a trusted neighbor nor play close attention to a boss who is unknown and whose commands make no sense whatsoever. As if these obstacles were not enough, it is hard to make common sense when each person sees something different—or nothing at all—because of the smoke.”

It went bad. Very bad. Tragically, 13 out of 15 firefighters died.

Consider what caused the tragedy

Bet you thought that this tragedy was caused by bad luck or faulty decision making. You would be right, but only partially. At the core were problems with sensemaking and structure—the social structure not the organization chart. And therein lie the important lessons.

Strategy is a rational way of making sense of things and it is built on clear answers to questions anticipating the future. When the fire unexpectantly jumped a gulch and raced toward them as well as racing from behind, the firefighter’s strategy playbook failed.

They needed to shift to contextual rationality, the kind that deals with vague questions, muddy answers, and quickly negotiated agreements to make sense of a rapidly changing danger. They held on to the playbook, in part because they faced the frightening feeling that their roles as firefighters no longer worked. They outran what they had learned from their experience.

When the crew foreman asked them to drop their tools and create a burn patch, they were unable to make sense of the one thing that would have saved their lives—the escape fire.  They acted from their gut and ran away from the fire. It was no contest.

There also were handicapped by problems with the social structure. The firefighters were pros but had never worked together before. They were not familiar with the leaders—the crew foreman and ranger—who also had not worked together.

When the plan they had was in serious jeopardy, Dodge the crew foreman saw it, but the ranger and the firefighters did not. When Dodge issued the order to reverse direction and rather than running from the fire stop and start one, he was not able to persuade them. Nor were the firefighters who were strung out able to connect with each other to make a fast, flexible decision to rationally change course—partly a problem of physical distance but also a lack of trust based on familiarity. There simply was not enough relationship and shared experience to deal with the crisis

What’s the Learning for Leaders Today Dealing with Unpredictable Environments?

To point the way to safety in the face of surprise, Karl Weick says that leaders need to develop resilient teams capable of four things.

  1. Improvisation: Being able, on the spot, to bring to the surface, test, and restructure one’s current sense of the situation at a time when action can still make a difference. Moving from the gut to rational thinking even when the situation hacks your emotions.
  2. Wisdom: The ability to accept that you don’t fully know what is happening at a given moment. Especially when the situation takes you beyond your knowledge. It’s no time to be the smartest person in the room. No one person is smart enough.
  3. Respect: Expect people to be respectful of interactions that hold the team together. Wise behavior is easier to display in this environment. Wisdom will wither and die in one that is lacking in respect.
  4. Communication: Evidence supports that non-stop talk is a crucial source of coordination in complex situations that are changing. Make non-stop talk a key skill and standard for teams that are dealing with challenging tasks laced with uncertainty and facing fast deadlines.

I would add a fifth capability.

  1. Intentional Bonding: Create the expectation and the time for people to really get to know and respect each other so that when they are facing a firestorm they depend on each other to more easily and quickly make sense of the situation and improvise solutions.

Leaders, I know most of you are not leading teams in conditions as dangerous as firefighters face.  Yet developing these five capabilities will be an asset as your teams continue to face unpredictable circumstances and the need to move faster than ever before.

And don’t forget to model these capabilities  yourselves.  That is one of the best tools you have to develop agility in your teams.