Saturday, November 14, 2009

Intuition at Mann Gulch

For those who don't know the Mann Gulch story, here's a bit more information. When the fire "blew up" that day, the leader - Wag Dodge - yelled to his team that it was a "death trap." Everyone began to run for the ridge, but Dodge soon realized that they probably could not outrun the fire. He bent down and lit another small fire in a grassy area with a match. Then, Dodge placed a handkerchief over his mouth and lay down in the smoldering ashes. Since the grassy area quickly burned, leaving nothing but dirt, the blaze went right over Dodge - leaving him unharmed. He had deprived the forest fire of the necessary fuel. Unfortunately, none of his crewmembers joined him in that grassy area. When he yelled to them to join him, they thought he was crazy. They had never seen such a tactic. They ran for the ridge instead, and most of them did not survive.

Where did Dodge come up with this tactic? He came to an intuitive decision. No such technique had ever been used by any smokejumper. He invented it on the spot. This tragic situation highlights one of the challenges associated with intuitive decision-making. People often don't understand your thought process when you make a "gut" decision, and thus they may be unlikely to follow your lead. Leaders must take great care to explain the rationale for all their decisions, but especially those that did not involve formal analysis.

In this case, Dodge didn't even have time to explain his thinking. Thus, he needed his crew members to believe deeply in him, but they did not. He had not built the rapport and credibility with his team necessary to elicit their buy-in at this critical moment. In short, leaders need to build a reservoir of trust within their team, long before they make critical choices for which they want buy-in and cooperation.

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