TRAGEDY AT MANN GULCH
On August 5, 1949, high above Montana’s Helena National Forest, sixteen smokejumpers readied themselves in their C-47 airplane, parachutes strapped tightly, waiting for the signal to jump. They were called to battle a raging wildfire in an area known as Mann Gulch. As the plane circled overhead, R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge, the crew foreman, and Earl Cooley, the spotter, lay side by side near the door, communicating quietly through their headphones and peering through binoculars for a safe place to jump.
The assistant spotter proceeded to drop a bright-orange “drift chute.” From the distance and direction that the wind blew the chute, he could determine how far ahead of the fire he should instruct the smokejumpers to exit the plane. A landing zone was identified on the side of the gulch not yet engulfed by flames. The men were packed tightly together as they stood up and moved toward the door of the plane. A twelve-foot-long static line connected the smokejumpers’ parachutes to the plane, so that when each man fell twelve feet, the line automatically opened the parachute. As the foreman customarily did, Dodge leaped out of the airplane first. The drop to the ground took only about a minute. After Dodge, the fourteen other smokejumpers (one of the original sixteen men who was supposed to jump became sick due to the strong turbulence, returned to base with the pilot, and immediately resigned from the smokejumpers) exited the plane and rocketed down to the ground within a half mile of the rapidly expanding fire.
The landing was rough. Most of the men were dragged by their chutes over sharp rocks, but miraculously, almost all escaped serious injury. Only Dodge cut his elbow, and despite that the cut went all way to the bone, there was little blood and it was easily bandaged. Once on the ground, they met up with James Harrison, who worked as a fireguard in the nearby Meriwether Canyon campground and had been fighting the fire alone for about four hours. Harrison knew firsthand the excitement and trepidation that the smokejumpers felt, as he had just retired as a smokejumper himself the year before, in large part because he knew the risks associated with the job and because he wanted to please his mother, who told him it was too dangerous. With the addition of Harrison, the fire crew had a sixteenth man back and was complete and ready to do battle.
The first order of business was to gather up all the cargo that was being dropped from the plane in separate parachutes after the men landed and would likely be scattered across an area of several hundred square yards. But just as they set out to collect their belongings, the crew heard a booming crash about a quarter mile down the canyon from their landing area. They soon discovered that the parachute for their radio had failed to deploy, and the sound they heard was said radio smashing into the ground. Better the radio than a person, the men must have thought. They would have known in that moment the tough reality that they were cut off completely from the outside world and could rely only upon one another as they set out to fight the Mann Gulch fire.
Once they retrieved the cargo, the fire crew headed down into the gulch in the direction of the Missouri River. From the air, it was clear that the fire (which was later determined to have started when lightning struck a dead tree) was located on the ridge between Mann Gulch and Meriwether Canyon and was burning partway down the Mann Gulch side but not yet into Meriwether. Without much warning, and as is often the case with Western wildfires, a sudden shift in the wind caused the fire to expand rapidly, which had the unfortunate effect of cutting off the crew’s planned route. Although the men didn’t know it at the time, later reports suggested that what was a fifty- to sixty-acre fire when the crew arrived had expanded to over three thousand acres in little more than ten minutes. This meant a massive and somewhat unforeseen intensity in the heat and smoke that accompanied the fire. And to make matters worse for the crew, the heat from the fire was dangerously amplified by the scorching ambient temperature of ninety-seven degrees, the result of an oppressive heat wave that had produced the hottest day on record for the Helena area to that date.
After Dodge and Harrison returned from a reconnaissance mission at the front of the fire, Dodge barked out instructions to William Hellman, his squad leader and second-in-command, to take the rest of the crew to the northern side of the gulch and then lead them down the canyon to the river. He also instructed Hellman not to take the crew down to the very bottom of the gulch but to have them “follow the contour” on the other side of the slope, ostensibly so they could keep an eye on the main body of the fire and thus remain safe. Unfortunately, in the heat and the smoke, the crew got separated by a wide distance and became confused. They ended up in two groups over five hundred feet apart and could not see one another, which had the effect of obscuring from each group whether the other was in front or behind. One of the problems with Hellman leading at this point was that the foreman (in this case, Dodge) was typically at the front of the crew leading the team, with the second-in-command at the back. But the roles were reversed, at least for Hellman.
Dodge decided that the conditions were worsening, and so he and Harrison made their way back toward Hellman and the crew. Once they reached them, Dodge retook the lead and began guiding the crew toward the river. Dodge led the crew for about five minutes down the gulch, and even though he was starting to get very worried, he didn’t think he should create panic by sharing his concerns. Instead, his focus was on moving his crew to safety.
Suddenly, Dodge saw something terrifying. The fire had actually crossed Mann Gulch and was racing up the ridge straight for his men. Two of the crew members, Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee, reported not seeing it, which meant that none of the crew likely saw it either. With only a 150- to 200-yard head start on the fire coming for them, Dodge reversed direction and started going back up the canyon away from the river, aiming for the top of the ridge. Many in the crew did not understand this abrupt about-face, as they did not see what Dodge had seen. Dodge loudly ordered the men to immediately drop the tools they were carrying so that they could start to run—and fast. At that point, the fire was only a hundred yards behind them. In the chaos that ensued, Dodge noted that, although some of the men quickly rid themselves of their packs and tools, others refused to do so. One of the men, David Navon, had even stopped to take pictures of the fire, perhaps contributing to a sense of complacency or a feeling that all was well, given that someone was taking time to photograph the approaching fire.
But all was not well. A look of dread came over the crew members as they realized that the fire was fast closing in on them. Dodge concluded that his men were not going to make the remaining two hundred yards up to the ridge in time to escape. Up ahead, Dodge rushed to build a small “escape fire.” The object of such a fire is to burn an area that an approaching fire would move around. Dodge kept yelling at his men, “This way! This way!” to get them to run toward this safe area, sure in the knowledge that this move would save everyone from imminent danger. It is believed that some of the men were so far away that they never heard Dodge’s commands. Those who were close enough to hear were confused by his actions, as setting a fire intentionally is normally done to create a backfire, or a fire line designed to cut off an advancing fire, which wouldn’t have been done in this case because there was not enough time. Sallee recalls thinking that Dodge must have gone nuts, as he questioned why the foreman would run ahead of his crew only to actually light a new fire in front of the fire he had ordered his men to try to escape! This was something no one had ever seen in the history of the Forest Service. None of these men could fathom what Dodge was up to, and they decided they did not want any part of it. In fact, one of the men shouted, “To hell with that! I’m getting out of here.” The men ignored Dodge’s calls and made a run for it to the top of the ridge. Running to a ridgetop was a commonly accepted maneuver taught to every smokejumper because the rocks and shale cannot serve as fuel for fire, and winds often meet at the top and dissipate. At this point, however, Dodge figured the men had only about thirty seconds before the fire overtook them. He knew the ridge was too far to reach in that short time.
In the confusion and the swirling smoke and fire, the separation between the men grew. A small group of men jumped out in front, somewhat close to Dodge’s escape fire. The rest of the men were several paces behind and spread out in a line that measured approximately a hundred yards. Rumsey, Sallee, and a third man, Eldon Diettert, were in the lead group and ran as fast as they could toward the safety of the ridge. As they neared the top, they realized they weren’t going to make it. Suddenly, they saw a “reef” between them and the ridge. A reef is an exposed piece of ancient ocean bottom that serves as a barrier and keeps the ridge from eroding. The men knew that if they were to survive, they would have to find an opening in that reef. In a fortunate stroke of serendipity, the smoke lifted just enough to spot a breach and then again to help guide their way. Sallee was first through the crevice and immediately felt the temperature drop a bit. Rumsey was next through the opening. Sadly, Diettert didn’t make it. He died on his nineteenth birthday. Sallee recalled that no one could have made it out alive if they had left Dodge even just a few seconds after they did.
Rumsey and Sallee reasoned that Dodge must have been setting a buffer fire to slow the main fire down, but again, the timing of such a maneuver was confusing. Besides, Dodge was setting this new fire only two hundred yards from the top of the ridge, which they thought he should have been able to reach had he been running. From the reef, Rumsey and Sallee were shocked as they recalled seeing Dodge lying face down in the hot ash created by his escape fire, his mouth covered with a handkerchief he wetted with water from his canteen, waiting for the main fire to move around him. Dodge later recalled that when the roaring fire went over him, he felt his body lift off the ground several times. A short while later, Rumsey and Sallee saw the outline of Dodge slowly appear through the billowing smoke, exhausted but alive. Rumsey and Sallee then attempted to look for other survivors, but the intense heat cut short their efforts, and they returned wordless and despondent back to Dodge.
Thirteen smokejumpers died at Mann Gulch that day. During the recovery mission, Harrison’s wristwatch was found with its hands melted at exactly 5:56 p.m., which was believed to be the time at which the flames overtook the crew. The events above are eloquently described in greater detail in Norman Maclean’s phenomenal work of nonfiction, Young Men and Fire (Maclean also wrote A River Runs through It, which was made into a Hollywood film directed by Robert Redford).
The Mann Gulch disaster highlights the crucial role that resilience plays in a team’s success and the forces that make a team unbreakable. For the team of smokejumpers, resilience could have saved their lives that day.
Regardless of whether your teams face life-or-death scenarios, they are sure to face adversity in some form. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (often abbreviated VUCA) business environments, all teams do. How well your team responds to that adversity will depend on its resilience.
WHAT IS RESILIENCE, AND WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT FOR TODAY’S TEAMS?
In our work with many teams and organizations over the years, we have developed a definition of team resilience, which is a team’s capacity to bounce back from a setback that results in a loss of valuable team processes.2 Let’s take each of the three parts—capacity, bounce back, setback—of that definition in turn. A setback occurs when critical team processes start to deteriorate. By team processes, we’re referring to what are generally known as “action” processes, because they take place when teams are attempting to complete their tasks or when they are, in essence, “in action.” These are the activities that are directly tied to successfully reaching goals, and so not surprisingly, when these processes start to break down, team performance takes a hit. That hit is a setback.
There are three important action processes every team must perform to accomplish its goals. First, a team must have effective coordination processes. These are activities that enable a team to orchestrate the sequencing and timing of its activities. For firefighter crews like those battling the Mann Gulch fire, coordination is absolutely essential. All team members must know their own roles and how they fit with all the other members’ roles. Of course, not everyone will be assigned to pumping stations, just like not everyone will be the primary lead on the hoses used to extinguish fires. Moreover, timing is everything when fighting a fire, as the Mann Gulch example sadly showed. How the crew members sequence everything they do ultimately determines how successful they will be in putting out fires, literally and figuratively.
The second key team process is monitoring, which refers to team members’ keeping an eye on one another, tracking and communicating progress toward goals, making all team members aware of what needs to be done, and, importantly, assessing team resources and external conditions related to achieving key goals. Imagine trying to fight a fire without monitoring. It would be impossible! Crew members on the fire engine would need to make sure that there was adequate water available for the size of a particular fire. Firefighters hosing down the fire would need to frequently radio back to the fire engine to update fellow members on the status of the fire. In the case of a wildfire, environmental conditions like heat and humidity would need to be constantly gauged against current resources available to the crew. Again, without effective monitoring processes, firefighter teams would have a very limited ability to do their jobs effectively.
Finally, the third key team process is backing up behavior, or coaching, assisting, and helping (perhaps even replacing) teammates, as necessary. Let’s continue with our firefighter example. Exhaustion is likely to overtake those firefighters who have to extend themselves to fight large fires. As a result, backing up behavior is critical, as teammates will need to jump in to relieve fellow members who require rest, water, or food to maintain their strength and endurance. A team’s backing up of behavior is possible only if effective monitoring practices are in place. For teammates to know when to step in and back one another up, they must be on the lookout for signs that someone needs help. In other words, teammates should always “have one another’s backs.” Even if teammates are not directly replacing fellow members, they may still play a backup role as coaches, encouraging their fellow teammates and, when appropriate, urging them to dig deeper and persevere. Serving as a positive motivational force can go a long way in terms of supporting and reinforcing fellow team members’ performance, especially during trying times. If any or all of these three team processes (coordinating, monitoring, and backing up) deteriorate, a team is said to have suffered a setback. Since action processes are those that are directly linked to team goals, deterioration of action processes means that progress toward goals has slowed, or even stopped completely. Figure 1.1 summarizes the nature of a team setback.
Returning to the definition of team resilience, for a team to demonstrate resilience, it must bounce back from the setback. A team bounces back when its members work together to return to its pre-adversity performance level, or possibly even beyond. In fact, many teams grow stronger and even more resilient because of a setback. These teams take the time to assess what happened, take an inventory of lessons learned, and execute changes designed to better equip them for future setbacks. In bouncing back, the hope is that teams can create virtuous (positive) rather than vicious (negative) dynamic cycles of learning and performance, which are critical for today’s teams working in volatile circumstances.3 Some great examples of this include the intense revamping of firefighter training and an increased reliance on the science of fire behavior that the US Forest Service undertook after Mann Gulch in order to improve future performance. Figure 1.2 shows the nature of a team’s bouncing back. Again, the hope is that after overcoming adversity and bouncing back from a setback, teams will eventually be able to exceed the performance level they had before adversity struck.
The third and final component of our team resilience definition is capacity. Team capacities are typically referred to as team emergent states. These are dynamic properties of teams that “emerge” as teammates interact with and relate to one another. Note that we use the term capacity purposefully because it suggests a team’s potential to achieve its goals after a setback. In other words, a team can be resilient without having an actual setback, because resilience is the capacity to address adversity, not necessarily actually addressing it. For firefighter teams, the extensive training and development that they receive serve to build up the resources so important for resilience in the event of adversity. Even if a firefighter team suffers a setback when battling a fire, it’s not an indication that the team lacks resilience. In fact, by definition, for a team to demonstrate resilience, it must first suffer a setback. After all, how can a team demonstrate that it’s unbreakable if nothing has tried to break it? If a team consistently achieves its goals without experiencing any setbacks, then it’s not demonstrating resilience; it’s demonstrating team performance. Again, a team cannot bounce back if there’s no deficit from which to bounce. In other words, a team need not suffer a setback to be resilient; however, a setback must happen for a team to demonstrate its resilience.
Think of resilience the way you might think of power in organizations. A person or team doesn’t have to actually exert its power over others to be powerful. To be powerful, that person or team must simply have the capacity to influence others should it ever need to. The same applies to team resilience. A team need not bounce back from a setback to be resilient. It simply must have the capacity to do so. In that sense, team resilience is a type of reservoir that a team can draw from in times of need.
HOW ARE RESILIENT TEAMS DIFFERENT FROM TEAMS OPERATING IN STABLE ENVIRONMENTS?
One question we get asked a lot when we discuss our work on team resilience is this: Isn’t team resilience just a fancy name for team performance? Or, framed another way, are there any key differences between resilient teams and high-performing teams? In answering these questions, we always begin by returning to the definition of team resilience, which is a team’s capacity to bounce back from a setback. It’s the ability to take a hit, suffer a loss, and return to a normal level of functioning or, hopefully, an even higher level than before. Simply put, resilient teams are unbreakable. Sure, they bend from time to time as adversity weighs on their team processes. But they snap back. Resilient teams never break.
So, how do resilient teams differ from high-performing teams? Bouncing back after a setback means more than just performing at a high level. There are many high-performing teams that excel in calm waters but sink at first sight of a storm. Those teams are not resilient. So, what distinguishes a resilient team from a high-performing team that performs well only in stable environments? Over the past two decades of working with thousands of teams from hundreds of companies, we’ve found that when adversity strikes, resilient teams do three specific things exceptionally well. They are skilled at making sense of situations, they coalesce, and they persist.
Sensemaking is a form of problem solving that’s unique to adverse situations, as there is no need to make sense of a calm situation in which everything is going smoothly. However, when disruptions occur in our routines and our lived experience is different from what we expected, we must pause to take stock of the situation, interpret what’s happening around us, and develop a response plan. This is exactly what resilient teams do. Before acting, they take the time to make sense of a situation, generate a solution to a problem, and form a strategy for overcoming it.
Think about the erosion of sensemaking among the firefighters at Mann Gulch. Although there were several key instances, perhaps the most notable was the inability of the men to make sense of Dodge’s escape fire. The men were incredulous that Dodge was building such a fire, and they interpreted his actions to mean he was lighting a backfire, normally used to cut off an advancing fire. However, the men knew this would be impossible given the time they had to deal with the advancing fire. And so they could not make sense of what Dodge was doing, which made them ignore his commands to come toward him. In fact, it was probably the loss of sensemaking that caused the men to panic, which ultimately cost them their lives.
Dr. Karl Weick, professor emeritus of organizational behavior and psychology at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School, was actually the first person to analyze the events of the Mann Gulch disaster using a sensemaking lens, and he did so with the purpose of discussing what makes organizations more or less resilient.4 His work was the inspiration for our reanalysis of Mann Gulch from a team resilience perspective. Weick discussed the fact that when the smokejumpers arrived at Mann Gulch, they had expected to engage with what firefighters referred to as a “10:00 fire.” This type of fire is labeled this way because it means that it can be largely contained and isolated by 10:00 a.m. the next morning. Even the spotters on the airplane that brought the crew to the fire openly characterized it this way. So the firefighters brought this “mental framing” to their challenge, which led to a whole host of sensemaking mistakes in addition to Dodge’s escape fire.
Weick referred to other sensemaking errors, including lack of clarity about who was in charge of the crew when Hellman was at the front for a time; Navon’s snapping photos of the advancing, menacing fire, which caused a disconnect between his actions and what the firefighters saw with their own eyes; Dodge’s reversal of direction, first toward what appeared to be the safety of the river and then in the exact opposite direction back up the ridge, as the rest of the firefighters likely did not see the fire jump the gulch in front of them; Dodge’s instructions to drop their tools creating a loss of identity for them as firefighters (they may have asked themselves, “How can I fight this fire without my tools?”); and Dodge’s confusing orders juxtaposed to the instinctual urge to flee a fire that was imminently bearing down upon them.
Sensemaking requires that teams work closely together and engage in effective information processing, communication, and decision making. This highlights the importance of coalescing, the second element that differentiates resilient from high-performing teams. Coalescing is the act of team members uniting in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, research tells us that coalescing is not the norm. Rather, when adversity strikes, individual team members have a natural tendency to shift their focus to their own self-interest at the expense of their team.5 This results in a breakdown of team processes, as the team splinters and struggles to coordinate in a cohesive manner. Unlike their brittle counterparts, members of resilient teams bond together despite the forces of adversity working to tear them apart.
For the Mann Gulch firefighters, clearly the stress of the moment caused the team to fracture. Getting separated in the confusion and smoke certainly did not help. When one of the men reacted to the confusion by shouting, “To hell with that! I’m getting out of here,” it was a perfect example of people suddenly putting their own self-interest first above the best interests of their team. Although one could argue this is a natural human reaction to danger (it’s the flight in fight or flight, after all), the firefighters’ extensive training should have been designed to thwart any natural inclinations in them to take an “every man for himself” mentality. Weick echoes this rationale for the lack of coalescing given their relative lack of familiarity with one another; a foreman who was not that well known to them barking out what seemed to be nonsensical commands; temperatures nearing 140 degrees with incessant noise created by the fire, raging winds, and exploding trees; and crew members all seeing different things due to their individual vantage point and the thick, billowing smoke. These challenges made coalescing particularly difficult for the Mann Gulch firefighters.
The third essential piece of the resilience puzzle is persisting. Adversity often takes a psychological toll on team members. It’s deflating to see something your team has worked so hard to build begin to crumble before your very eyes. This can result in feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of giving up. These thoughts and feelings are contagious in a team, and they escalate as members discuss their dire circumstances. It’s in these very moments that resilient teams dig deep and summon the motivation to press forward. Persisting is the manifestation of a team’s grit. It’s the process through which teams forge ahead through rough waters.
Mann Gulch also presented challenges to the firefighter crew’s persistence. Clearly, the psychological effects of this disaster unfolding were debilitating. First, they were headed toward the river, then suddenly back in the opposite direction toward the ridge, and then finally they were told to stop well before the ridge and join Dodge in what appeared to them to be a backfire. Feelings of hopelessness surely would have taken hold, and as the author Maclean phrased it, after leaving Dodge, “they were suddenly and totally without command and suddenly without structure and suddenly free to disintegrate and free finally to be afraid.”6 Tragically, largely due to a failure of sensemaking and coalescing, there was no team left to persist in fighting the fire.
Taken together, the three resilient actions described here enable teams to bounce back from a setback. These actions differentiate resilient teams from those that perform at a high level but only in stable environments. Bouncing back requires teams to make sense of the situation and develop an effective response plan (sensemaking), come together as a single unit and coordinate their response (coalescing), and maintain the motivation to see the plan through to the end (persisting).
WHAT’S IN THE REST OF THE BOOK?
Having established a basic understanding of what resilient teams do during times of adversity, we turn next to the factors that hold teams back, preventing them from performing these resilient actions. That is the focus of chapter 2, in which we use the Mann Gulch tragedy and several other notable team failures to walk you through four common pitfalls that cripple a team’s bounce-back attempts.
We then shift to the primary purpose of this book: building and leading resilient, unbreakable teams. This focus is closely related to the three actions just described and the pitfalls described in the next chapter. In fact, these actions and pitfalls serve as the foundation that will guide our resilience-building framework. To build a resilient team, leaders must focus their efforts on developing specific team qualities that enable teams to engage in the three resilient actions and avoid the resilience pitfalls. Our research has identified four such qualities, and we designate full chapters (chapters 3–6) to developing each one in your teams. In chapter 7, we walk you through an example, from start to finish, of a resilient team bouncing back from adversity. This chapter offers an overview of the entire team resilience cycle, including activities that can aid a team in minimizing adversity before it strikes, managing it while it’s present, and mending what is likely to be a tired and weary team after the adversity subsides. In chapter 8, we consider the special case of how leaders can build resilience in their remote and hybrid teams in which members do not interact face-to-face much (or at all) and might even be spread out in different countries across multiple time zones. In the conclusion, we offer leaders a set of diagnostic tools for assessing their teams’ level of resilience and their own leadership actions devoted to building team resilience. By the time you get to the end of the book, you will have the knowledge and the blueprint for building resilient teams that are unbreakable.
1. Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
2. Adam C. Stoverink, Bradley L. Kirkman, Sal Mistry, and Benson Rosen, “Bouncing Back Together: Toward a New Theoretical Model of Work Team Resilience,” Academy of Management Review 45 (2020): 395–422.
3. Rick Edgeman, “Routinizing Peak Performance and Impacts via Virtuous Cycles,” Measuring Business Excellence 21 (2017): 261–71.
4. Karl E. Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster,” Administrative Science Quarterly 38 (1993): 628–52.
5. James E. Driskell, Eduardo Salas, and Joan Johnson, “Does Stress Lead to a Loss of Team Perspective?,” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 3 (1999): 291–302; Alexander P. J. Ellis, “System Breakdown: The Role of Mental Models and Transactive Memory in the Relationship between Acute Stress and Team Performance,” Academy of Management Journal 49 (2006): 576–89.
6. Maclean, Young Men and Fire.