Monday, April 2, 2012

The Mann-gulch tragedy

The Mann-Gulch tragedy has been told many times. There are books and essays in abundance that tell about the 1949 forest fire in Montana that turned deadly.

One telling I like is in the book "How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer.

In a few words, a fire team was caught when the fire suddenly turned and became an out of control conflagration. The team was led by an experienced fire fighter, but he was new to the team. When push came to shove, the team abandoned their new and untrusted leader and tried to make their own way. They all died.

The team leader and a couple of others improvised a heretofore unheard of practice: they set a backfire and hid in it, using their fire protection clothing and tools, accepting the lesser of two evils. They survived.

There are three stories within the Mann Gulch story:
1. A story of change: the fire suddenly changed character making known process, methods, and plans instantly obsolete
2. A story of trust and leadership: trust had not gelled between the relatively new leader and the fire team
3. A story of improvised methods driven by extreme need

Here are a few comments on point 2:

The Mann Gulch story is a poster child for unquestioning obedience to command, and the principle of command autonomy, perhaps more so than leader-follower which is different.

In life-safety situations, to include life-safety projects where failure is not an option, certain protocols need to be in place before hand. They must be practiced to the point of so-called system-1 "fast thinking" (See Daniel Kahneman, "Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow"), and embedded in the organization's culture.

At the moment of the event is too late to develop the intuition and trust. (Similar intuitive thinking examinations are in Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink")

Whether fueling the space shuttle, working in a level IV bio-hazard lab, leading a first responder team, or engaged in a military firefight, command must be unambiguous, and expected to change in an instant with the loss of the commander. Thus, obedience must transfer instantly to the new commander.

Many leader-follower scenarios are described as the followers giving permission to the leader to lead so long as the followers are satisfied. Effective in some situations, it will get people killed in a Mann-Gulch project.Thus, we make a clear distinction between command-obedience systems and leader-follower systems.

An excellent text on leadership is "Leadership without easy answers" by Ronald Heifetz

There are, of course, exceptions with prejudice to command-obedience. In military situations, this is called mutiny. Sometimes, mutiny is justified. Two fictional accounts illustrate the point well: "The Caine Mutiny", a story of a warship in danger of floundering in a hurricane; and "Crimson Tide", the story of a violation of nuclear launch code protocols.

On the bridge of the Caine, in the midst of "Halsey's Typhoon", in the Pacific in 1944, the captain is panicked and making life-threatening decisions. The XO mutiny's, takes countermeasures, and saves the ship.

On the bridge of the submarine, USS Alabama "Crimson Tide", the captain violates launch protocols; again the XO mutiny's, takes countermeasures, and in a courts martial, he is exonerated.