In defence of R Wagner Dodge the crew chief of the Mann Gulch smokejumpers – 3E Learning Studio

In defence of R Wagner Dodge the crew chief of the Mann Gulch smokejumpers

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  • 04 Feb, 2023
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In defence of R Wagner Dodge the crew chief of the Mann Gulch smokejumpers

August 5th, 1949 does not get mentioned on the pages of google when one searches for the historical importance of August 5 in general.

However, for those who follow the history of accidents, especially fire accidents, will not miss the importance of this fateful day. The Mann Gulch Fire at Montana, US was one of the earliest fire disasters that became etched in human history not just from the perspective of safety and fire hazard but also from the perspective of Decision making and Leadership behavior in crisis situations

Mann Gulch fire disaster is now a classic case study on Leadership challenges discussed by most Management text books. First investigated and written by Norman McLean in his book “Young Men and Fire” and later popularised by Michael Useem in his book, “The Leadership moment”, the Mann Gulch incident is an appropriate introduction to any discussion on problem solving, decision making or understanding leadership behavior in crisis situations.

In an HBR article on Crisis Management (May – June 1996), Karl Weick portrayed this incident as a Leadership challenge, when he wrote:

“What should the structure of a small group be when its business is to meet sudden danger and prevent disaster? That question was not posed by an arbitrage unit leader, a turnaround artist, or an aircraft dispatcher coping with the blizzard of the century. Instead, it was asked by a former professor of English Literature at the University of Chicago who studied a forest fire that killed thirteen young men”

The professor, Dr. Weick refers to in this article, is Norman McLean who in book “Young Men and Fire”. McLean had spent more than a decade researching and writing about it and the book was published posthumously in 1992.

In his book McLean defends the thirteen smokejumpers and is always with the brave young dead. From the time of his arrival at the spot a few days after the disaster, he relentlessly circles the fire and its mystery. And throughout his story, he remains faithful to the mystery around this fire. The most spectacular mystery, McLean considered, is whether Dodge’s fire, set as an escape, was in fact, what devoured his crew or at least forced them away from their only exit through the ridge into the sideways, and consequently losing the race to the main fire.

When Henry Thol Senior, father of a deceased smokejumper filed damage suits charging negligence, McLean says that the Forest service responded by coaching or bullying key witnesses into altering their official statements, by retouching and reshaping official documents, by burying others and scattering more, and by apparently hiding, seven or eight recovered watches so that the one released would indicate the official time of death. He is concerned, above all, with honoring the dead. He romanticises their death so much that the incident transform from a disaster (if not an accident) into a mystery which cannot be solved and therefore never completely known, regardless how much one tries.

Dr. Weick in his HBR article writes: “As if these obstacles are not enough, it is hard to make common sense when each person sees something different – or nothing at all – because of the smoke” he introduces a dimension of sense – making and contextual rationality into a story that in a way is already pointing the finger of blame for the disaster towards the crew foreman.

First, by asking the crew to drop their tools, the crew foreman, Wagner Dodge turned the situation into an existential question for the crew. By asking the crew to drop the very tools that are their reason for being there, Dr. Weick says, turns the moment quickly into an existential question – If I am no longer a firefighter than who am I? – This therefore becomes Dodge’s first unpardonable mistake – taking away the very reason the firefighters are present there.

Next, he says that “because clear communication, familiarity and trust were missing the firefighters failed to understand that Dodge was actually setting the fire to clear an area in which they would be actually safe”.

The escape fire lit by Dodge compounded an absence of clear sense triggered the complete collapse of the little remaining system within the group. This is then the second unpardonable mistake of Wagner Dodge.

By raising these two questions in his essay, Dr. Weick molds into metal what Henry Thol Sr was accusing the crew chief of, and what Norman McLean was lending his voice to – Denouncing every one of the major orders given to the jumpers as an “unpardonable error in woodsmanship”

By now, Wagner Dodge is completely stereotyped as the villain of the story – an incapable leader. The influence of Mclean’s approach as a voice for the dead is palpable through Dr. Weick’s essay only that it goes a step further and rephrases McLean’s romantic language into a more logical & unemotive leadership parlance.

Contemporary books on Leadership studies like Michael Useem’s “The Leadership Moment” – Nine true stories of triumph and disaster published in 1998 picks up the thread from where Dr. Weick left it. Useem’s inclusion of the Mann Gulch in his nine stories but classifying it as a disaster further propagates the views offered by Norman McLean and Dr. Karl Weick. Like his predecessors, for Useem too, Mann Gulch is a clear and closed case of Leadership failure. Wagner Dodge, the crew chief, is the one who failed to deliver.

To me it now appears that it is Wagner Dodge who is in need a voice and a defense, more than anyone else in this story. Three points that I want to highlight.

First the cognitive understanding and mental map of “10 o’clock fire” that was etched into the understanding of each crew member played a key role in their estimation of the danger of the situation. Wagner Dodge was not the creator, but like his fellow colleagues, was a victim of this mental model. Such models get created when we rationalize the world around us so that we are able to effectively deal with it. It is probable, that Dodge was trained to think about forest fires using these concepts and models, and it is also probable – keeping with strong military culture was not encouraged (and in turn did not encourage) to challenge these models, but rather focus on acting on them, in the best feasible way. Staying true to this training he did not question this model of ten o clock fire, or what he saw it from the air, even when ideally, he should have. The dominance of the mental model of 10 o’clock fire in the thought process of the entire team, is the first granular error that later snowballed into a catastrophe. I don’t see this as Dodge’s failure but rather the failure of the culture in which challenging existent mental models was not encouraged.

Second: As the situation rapidly spun out of control, fear dominated the minds of each crew member, and it is possible that the foremost thought that every crew member had in his mind was his own survival. This can be interpreted as lack of trust, if and only if, this would have happened in spite of the crew and their leader having worked together as a team, through several situations in the past. But that was not so. The system required that only the most rested smokejumper was sent for the jump and smokejumpers would often find themselves working together with people they were familiar with but did not know them well enough. It is unwise to expect trust, within such teams to be so high, that team members have blind faith in each other. And blaming the leader for the breaking of trust is like looking for sandbag for punching out our anger, frustrations, despair, and grief.

Third: Dr. Weick suggests, the firefighters lost their sense of identity when asked to discard their tools and save their lives. What Dr. Weick points towards appears to be true since many of the firefighters did not discard their tools despite receiving instructions from their leader to do so. To me this loss of identify is more a consequence of their cultural and cognitive upbringing rather than their failure of understanding or following instructions due to lack of trust. Identifying the tools as a part of their extended self the firefighters were like the person with a hammer to whom every problem is a nail. If the thought in the minds of the firefighters was “if I don’t need my hammer anymore then the problem is no longer a nail and therefore there is no reason for me to be here” indicates the lack of cognitive plasticity in their thought process and the inability to envision themselves in situations beyond the ones, they were originally assigned to. Or their inability to think beyond their area of expertise. To me it appears that they continued to carry their tools not because they did not trust their leader, but because they could not imagine a different outcome. The limits of their thinking were locked within the contours of their tools. And if so, then I would think that those firefighters were part of the problem, rather than the solution. Repurposing, possibly, was an alien concept, to the crew and crew head alike and therefore we would be unfair towards Dodge if we measured his leadership capability primarily on this scale.

There surely are several technical errors that Dodge might have made like identifying the landing spot, gauging the direction of the wind, or taking into cognizance the type of vegetation or understanding the landscape which surrounded the crew. Dodge also cannot be excused of other errors like taking time out for dinner or asking his second in command to lead the team while he stops to scout the fire, or where he turns his team around without giving a reason.

But come to think of it – most of the crew’s behavior, especially the crew chief, originated from a shared mental model. In their mind’s eye they all unanimously saw the fire was a Class C, 10 o clock fire and can be easily controlled. And therefore, his behavior lacked urgency, caution, and alertness. I would rather think that they were a victim of groupthink above anything else, and by the time they realised this, it was probably too late.

I would imagine that he and his crew, perceived the situation as something normal or usual which they were required to prevent the fire from spinning out of control, rather than as an uncontrollable situation that needed to be quickly normalised by bringing the fire under control. The mental model which the crew used for framing their primary problem questions, was flawed and for that mistake it is unfair and unjust to hold Dodge’s Leadership capabilities as solely responsible. It was rather a collective failure of the system in which the crew was trained to fight fires and the culture which developed Dodge as a leader.

If it would not have quickly thought of the escape fire, Mann Gulch might have seen fourteen deaths that fateful day. The ability to bring out innovative ideas in the midst of a life and death situation is the quality of a remarkable leader. But few case studies pause to give him that credit. Most are more concerned with analysing why thirteen smokejumpers died, few discuss why three were saved.

Robert Wagner Dodge was sent on three more jumps after the incident. But he could not bring himself to jump on all the three times. He died of Cancer on January 12th 1955. These facts, which are conveniently left out of most management case studies, clearly shows the impact the disaster had on Wagner Dodge, both professionally as well as personally.

Though exonerated from all charges, I doubt that Dodge was able to forgive himself for this tragedy as he barely lived for six more years after the incident.

It is also strange that he chose to be cremated rather than buried. managementtraining

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