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Thinking Out Loud

A Leadership Notebook: Firefighting

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 05, 2015

Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

Scott WilliamsonThis spring our "Leadership Notebook" blog will look at particularly interesting and helpful insights that have emerged from a variety of sources. I am grateful to my old friend David Forney for sharing Karl Weick’s fascinating insight with me. David, now the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Charlottesville, Virginia, was associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia Seminary when he shared Weick’s article. Most people in leadership have brushed up against the rhetoric Weick explores though few have gone to the depths he has, unless, of course, like our own Professor Scott Williamson (pictured), they actually know the world of firefighting from the inside out!

“Oh, putting out grass fires today. How about you?”

This is not an unusual remark from the lips of folks in leadership, in response to the query, “What have you been up to today?” Most of us have said something similar at some time.

A few years ago, Karl E. Weick, sometimes referred to as the “dean of educational administration,” decided to take our rhetoric about firefighting seriously. Seriously enough, that is, to do some research into the experience of real firefighters, particularly the sort who fight wildfires.

Weick’s thesis is straightforward (and directly related to educational leadership): “The ways in which wildland firefighters preclude failure when they fight fires in forests have direct relevance to the ways in which educational firefighters can preclude failure when they fight fires in schools.” Weick’s findings are fascinating and highly applicable to all sorts of organizational leadership, including, of course, the church.

Part of Weick’s research was documentary, studying the infamous Mann Gulch fire that occurred in 1949 in which “15 young smokejumpers and a forest ranger were trapped near the bottom of a 76 percent slope in western Montana by an exploding fire at 5:40 in the afternoon.” The story of this tragedy is told in Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire (University of Chicago Press, 1992). [Maclean is best known for his beautiful book, A River Runs Through It (University of Chicago Press, 1972)]. Weick summarizes the Mann Gulch experience:

Thirteen were killed when they tried to outrun the fire. Of the three who survived, one lived by burning a hole in the fire and the other two squeezed through a break in the rocks at the top of the slope. The person who lived by building an escape fire had ordered others to join him in the area cleared by his fire, but all refused to do so. (Karl E. Weick, “Fighting Fires in Educational AdministrationEducational Administration Quarterly, Vol. 32 (October 1996) No. 4. p. 566).

Weick found that the manner in which these firefighters was organized actually contributed to the disaster.

There were weak interpersonal ties among people on the Mann Gulch firefighting crew because they had been assembled from several different crews.

Leadership kept shifting because two people informally vied to replace the formal leader.

The crew’s radio was destroyed, which made it impossible to get the big picture of what was happening around them.

They received no briefing on fall-back positions, safety zones, or escape routes.

There was a solution within the group to the problem of how to cope with a fire that blows up (build an escape fire), but only one person understood it, and that person could not persuade others that it was a solution.

They ignored clues that the fire was becoming more dangerous to confirm their prior belief that it was an easy fire to suppress.

They were unable to communicate with each other because of the noise and smoke.

They had little experience with fighting fires in grassy terrains (they had been trained to fight fires in timber) or with fighting fires where they were the first ones on the scene (9 of the 13 were first-year jumpers with little prior experience fighting established fires)
. (Weick, 567)

Weick observes that management teams in schools (and other institutions) are often organized in precisely the same way that the Mann Gulch team was organized. Our organizations are, therefore, vulnerable not only to wildfires (that is part of nature), but also to the kinds of failures that lead firefighters to get burned, literally. Weick moves from the descriptive, however, to the prescriptive.

Based on his research drawn from a variety of sources, Weick explains that there are basically five conditions “under which it seems likely that fires will be contained rather than explode in both wildlands and schools.” Effective firefighting can happen, he writes:

1. When people appreciate the complexity of small events and mobilize complex systems to sense and manage them;
2. When people know what they do not know and simultaneously trust and mistrust their past experience;
3. When people have a model for the origin of rogue events;
4. When people strive to manage issues rather than to solve problems; and
5. When people improvise after first putting into place a system of lookouts, communication, escape routes, and safety zones (LCES).
(Weick, 567)

Some of the lessons he draws from his research may seem obvious. For example, “You can never afford to be complacent. Alertness is your most valuable asset.” (Weick, 568) Other conclusions may be surprising. For example, while most of us would not be startled to learn that many fireline accidents occur among firefighters with only two years of experience, we would likely not expect that the other group of firefighters who tend most often to be injured or killed have 10-15 years of experience. Obviously, the first group doesn’t know enough about the varieties of peril to stay safe. The second group, however, may have come to believe that the fire has nothing new to teach them. Humility and a teachable spirit, in other words, might just save your life.

Weick also reminds us of the value of holding on to fundamentals of good practice. Many firefighters who get hurt, he reminds us, know but ignore basic practices that would have kept them safe. One firefighter who was caught up in a disastrous accident admitted later, “My ditty bag contained a copy of standard fire orders and watch-out situations. I considered looking at it, but didn’t. I knew we were violating too many to contemplate.” (Weick 575) It is also true that the group of firefighters Weick considered in the South Canyon fire disaster simply “did not know a lot of things they should have known. That ignorance cost 14 of them their lives.” (Weick, 573) This is especially pertinent for firefighters or leaders who confuse the contexts they are in, assuming that everything they learned in another context transfers to the new one, or that nothing does. It takes wisdom and good judgment to apply knowledge in different contexts.

It won’t surprise anyone that communication is a crucial issue in firefighting. But what some may not realize is that communication is not simply a matter of imparting information, but, even more, of trusting those who share the information. As Weick put it: “Fire is not the problem. The problems are alertness, trust, trustworthiness, respect, candor, and ‘the will to communicate.’” (Weick 574) He reminds us that one of the firefighters in the Mann Gulch fire did precisely the thing that would have saved the team’s life, burning an escape route, but none of his partners trusted the well-tested practice.

One aspect of Weick’s analysis of firefighters is reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, always making sure you have a reliable escape route. Weick, in fact, thinks there should be several viable escape routes in any combustible situation. Flexibility is extremely important “under fire,” because leaders need options, not only if they want to survive to fight the next fire, but if they want their organizations to thrive.

Weick’s essay is exceptionally helpful. Every time I re-read it, I discover new insights because it speaks to new experiences.

Stay safe out there!

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