THE LEADERSHIP MOMENT : Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for us All MICHAEL USEEM Chapter 2 : Wagner Dodge Retreats in Mann Gulch “What the hell is the boss doing, lighting another fire in front of us? ” W AGNER DODGE WAS facing the moment, the decision of a lifetime. A fast-moving forestand-grass fire was about to overrun him and the fifteen firefighters under his command. Less than two hours earlier they had sky-jumped into a fiery gulch in Montana. Now an enormous wall of flame was racing at them up the tinder-dry ravine.
They knew they were running for their lives, and Dodge knew their time was running out. Dodge’s mind, still remarkably in control, was also concluding that he and his men had almost reached a point of no exit. He estimated that in a mere ninety seconds the conflagration would overtake him and the crew. If he could still discover a way out or invent some way to survive within, it would make the difference between miraculous escape or catastrophic failure, between saving himself and his fifteen men or losing all.
A Fire in Mann Gulch LOCATED IN A rugged area of central Montana, Mann Gulch runs into the Missouri River in a region named Gates of the Mountains in 1805 by the famed northwest explorer Meriwether Lewis. In such inaccessible areas, fire is always a worry, but on August 5, 1949, the danger was greater than usual. By late summer, central Montana was so bone dry that the U. S. Forest Service put the fire potential at 74 on a scale of zoo. Twenty-five miles to the south, Helena was reaching a record temperature for the day of 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
A small thundershower moving through the area offered momentary respite. But the storm also meant lightning, and lightning often means fire. Page 1 of 9 By 2. 30 PM, a crew had loaded onto a C-47 at the smoke-jumper base in Missoula. Thirty-three-year-old R. Wagner Dodge was the crew chief. A man of few words, he had fought many fires during his nine years in the business, and he was deservedly the team boss for the technical expertise he brought to the attack. The fifteen men who checked their parachutes and climbed on board with him were young, eager, conditioned.
They had been fighting fires all summer and were ready for this one. Some were college students who had volunteered for the summer; others were career firefighters. Several were World War II veterans. Among those who took their seats for the twenty-minute trip to Mann Gulch were Robert Sallee, underage for the work at seventeen, and Walter Rumsey. The outfit also included David Navon, a former first lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division who had parachuted into Bastogne, Belgium, during the 1944 German counteroffensive, and William J.
Hellman, who only a month earlier had parachuted onto the Ellipse between the White House and the Washington Monument. The men under Dodge’s command hailed from Massachusetts and Montana, New York and North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey As the aircraft circled twice around Mann Gulch, Dodge and spotter Earl Cooley scouted a safe landing zone. The men were. belted down, but the plane was bouncing about in the turbulence, an early hint of what was to come. Many of them felt half sick, and one, too nauseous to jump, opted to return to Missoula.
On Dodge’s signal, the others leapt out the open door, targeting a landing zone high on the upper left side of the ravine, marked as point I in Figure 2 . 1 . Dodge and his crew hit the ground at 4:10 P . M . and by 5. 00 had gathered their chutes, loaded their packs, and shouldered their shovels. Dodge suggested that his men take some food and drink before moving out. In fire jumpers’ parlance, it was a “ten o’clock fire” on the other side of the gulch-one they would fight all night and expect to have under control by 10 A . M . the next day.
August fires often begin late in the afternoon as lightning rumbles through, and most of them are small enough to be contained by the following morning. The men knew that a brief rest now would probably be their last until the job was done. This day, though, they were moving without several requisite items, including a map and radio. The map was falsely believed to be in the hands of a firefighter already in the area, and the radio had been destroyed when an equipment parachute failed to deploy. Still, on Dodge’s orders they moved down the gulch single file, confidently prepared to confront the blaze.
Page 2 of 9 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. Landing zone Dodge leaves crew Dodge’s reconnaissance Path to river blocked by fire Crew discards equipment Dodge’s escape fire Sallee & Rumsey’s rockslide Fire overtakes others Figure 2. 1 – Wagner Dodge in Mann Gulch, Aug 5th 1949. The firefighter already in the area linked up with Dodge and his crew, but the full complement of sixteen men was a team only in the loosest sense. The men had all undergone a three week training program earlier in the summer, and they had been disciplined to work together, react quickly, and follow their commander’s lead.
But Dodge had to exercise his command without the authority of military drill. Even more difficult, he was an unknown quantity to many of the men under him. Several had worked with him before; all knew of him: But they had never worked together as a single group, under Dodge or anyone else, and Dodge himself was not even sure of all their names. Under U. S. Forest Service policy, it is the amount of rest, not the amount of camaraderie, that determines how men are assembled for a day’s jump group.
Those with the longest respite since their last fire are the first to go. A hardened set of individuals this group was; a hardened combat platoon it was not. Three Terrible Discoveries AS DODGE APPROACHED the fire line, he told his men to wait in the center of the gulch (point 2) while he moved ahead to scout within a hundred feet of the front. It was during that time, at point 3, that he made the first of three terrible discoveries of the day. Here he found that the blaze was far more dangerous than he had guessed from aerial reconnaissance.
A ground wind was coming across the river and over the ridge, at twenty to forty miles an hour, whipping the flames up and blowing them down his path. A vigorous wind is an oxygen supply, nature’s giant bellows. Alarmed, he retreated to the rest spot and instructed his men to head for the mouth of the gorge. He himself retreated further back to the landing zone to retrieve some food he had forgotten, leaving his men to move down the gulch without him. Dodge’s instructions were logical. The fire was more threatening than expected, but safety would be assured if he could place his crew between the fire and the river.
Should the fire force them into the river, so be it: they would swim out some yards, stay low to avoid smoke, and, once the fire swept by, climb back onshore. The Missouri River was Dodge’s insurance. As the men moved down the gulch without Dodge in the lead, the firefighters became divided in two. As much as five hundred feet separated the two subgroups, neither of which was quite sure where the other was. Twenty minutes later, at about 5:40, Dodge finally regrouped his men and resumed the lead, moving them further toward the mouth of the gulch.
Here he made a second, more terrible discovery (point 4): the winds were swirling around the flaming ridge, sweeping burning branches and glowing embers into the air and across the front of the gulch. In the few minutes since their arrival in the gulch, fiery eddies had closed the escape route. Dodge’s alarm bells- all of them-were sounding. At 5:45, Dodge reversed course, saying nothing to his men, but they surely knew why, since they too had seen the wind whipped smoke across the gulch’s mouth in front of them. The crew kicked into a run up the left-hand side of the gulch.
Within minutes, Dodge passed word down the line that all equipment-packs, saws, axes, shovels were to be discarded and that they must move as fast Page 3 of 9 as they possibly could (point 5). He knew, and they must have known, that what had been a routine jump into a ten o’clock fire was now becoming a dash for their lives. It is hard to imagine what could be worse than what Dodge and his men had already encountered in their short time in Mann Gulch. Less than an hour had passed since they had stashed their parachutes and confidently set out to do their job. But Dodge, at the head of the line, ade his third and most terrifying discovery, of the day just a few minutes later. A forest fire rarely moves at more than four or five miles an hour, an advance that smoke jumpers can always outrun.. But Mann Gulch was part of a transitional zone – an area where mountains yield to plains and, forest timber to prairie grass and as the men fled from the fire, the forest gave way to shoulder-high grass, dense, dry, and ready to explode. The Plains Indians feared a prairie grass fire almost as much as anything. They knew that the worst could not be outrun, and now Dodge knew it too.
His mind still in steely control, Dodge estimated that as fast as he and his men could move up what was now becoming a grassy slope, the towering wall of fire would move faster. Within a minute or two, Dodge estimated, perhaps sooner, he and his men would be overtaken by flames. The roar was deafening. Sap in scattered trees was superheating and exploding. Smoke, embers, and ashes swirled in all directions. The apparent options offered Dodge no escape: stand and be fatally burned; turn and be fatally burned; run and be fatally burned. The Solution
AT 5:55, DODGE abruptly stopped, lit a match from a matchbook he carried, and threw it into the prairie grass in front of him (point 6). His fire, almost instantly a widening circle of flame, burned fast. By the normal measures of fire fighting, what Dodge lit appeared to be a “backfire”- one intended to burn off enough fuel in a limited strip to prevent the real fire from advancing. And indeed he would be asked, at a subsequent government investigation into the events of August 5, why he had chosen this moment of extreme urgency to light such a backfire.
In response, Dodge would assert that this was not and could not have been a backfire: with less than a minute remaining until he was engulfed by flames, a backfire would not have cleared enough grass to stop anything. Why, then, had he paused to light the fire? The answer seemed both impossible and simple: he had lit the fire in order to take refuge inside it. As the ring of his new fire spread, it cleared a small area of all flammable substances. It was not much of a safety zone, but it would have to do.
He jumped over the blazing ring, moved to its smoldering center, wrapped a wet cloth around his face, pressed himself close to the ground, and waited. As he had anticipated, the surging fire wall rounded both sides of his small circle, leapt over the top, but found nothing to ignite where he lay motionless. Within moments the front passed, racing up the ridge and leaving him unscathed in his tiny asylum. He stood, brushed off the ash, and found he was no worse for wear. He had literally burned a hole in the raging fire. But he had not forgotten his crew.
Just before his lighting of the escape fire, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey had been second and third in a line of sprinting men that stretched behind Dodge many dozen yards down the hill. Like the other firefighters, Sallee and Rumsey had left the aircraft when Dodge said “Jump,” they had moved toward the mouth of the gulch when he said “Go,” and they had dashed uphill when he said “Run. ” Now, as Sallee and Rumsey stumbled on a stopped Dodge, they saw their boss motioning them to come inside an expanding ring of fire. This way! ” he shouted. Though Sallee and Rumsey could not hear Dodge in the deafening inferno, they could see what he wanted from his frantic waving. They also saw an enormous fire wall at their back, and it was about to overwhelm both them and Dodge’s circle. The Fatal End S A L L E E AND RUMSEY glanced at Dodge but kept going rounding his fire circle, mounting the ridge to their left, and moving down the other side into what is ironically called “Rescue Gulch. ” Fires do not stop at the ridge tops; they only slow momentarily.
The Mann Gulch fire swept into Rescue Gulch as well, but Sallee and Rumsey chanced upon their own oasis, a strip of stone without vegetation, a rockslide some seventy-five feet wide that had denied purchase to grass and trees alike (point 7). They too squeezed toward the middle, the fire raced down both sides, and a few minutes later, suffering from neither burns nor smoke, they worked their way back toward Mann Gulch. Page 4 of 9 The remaining thirteen men also rushed by Dodge and his widening circle of flame. Dodge heard one man say, as he glanced at the escape scheme, “To hell with that, I’m getting out of here! Sallee, who paused higher up after speeding by Dodge, looked back and later estimated that most of the men had passed within twenty to fifty feet of Dodge, just outside the burning ring. After that, however, their stars were not propitious: the thirteen chanced upon no bare spots. As Dodge had anticipated, they were quickly overtaken by the prairie grass fire they could not outrun (point 8). Unscathed, Dodge, Sallee, and Rumsey gathered and went in search of the others. Several of the men survived a few hours, but all were fatally burned, most not far from where they had started less than an hour before.
They had left their landing zone at about 5. 00 that afternoon. The hands on the watch of James O. Harrison were melted into the dial at 5:56. It was the worst fire-fighting disaster in Forest Service history and would remain so for forty-five years, until fourteen men and women were killed on July 6, 1994, on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, combating a vicious winddriven grass fire that also suddenly engulfed them. L E A D E R S H I P I S A product of both today’s actions and yesterday’s groundwork.
The fatal combination that emerged in Mann Gulch was partly what Dodge did or did not do on August 5, but also partly what he did or did not do well before the smoke jumpers ever climbed aboard the aircraft. We will first review his decisions in the air and on the ground, in the gulch and later turn to what he might have done earlier in the summer to prepare for that fateful August afternoon. First is the question of why Sallee, Rumsey,. and the other thirteen smoke jumpers refused to join Dodge inside his circle of fire. It was, after all, an immediate solution, a lifesaving solution, a communicated solution.
Sallee later reported, “I saw him bend over and light a fire with a match. I thought, with the fire almost on our back, what the hell is the boss doing, lighting another fire in front of us? ” Sallee was close to Rumsey, and he expressed a conclusion reached by both: “We thought he must have gone nuts. ” Yet they had, it must be recalled, dutifully followed all of Dodge’s earlier instructions. When he had said to plunge out the open door of the airplane, they had done so; when he had moved them toward the mouth of the gulch, they had gone; when he had said to drop their equipment and run for their lives, they had obeyed.
Why had his authority suddenly failed him? One explanation-that the trailing crew members did not see or understand Dodge’s frantic waving-may apply to some. But the two survivors said that they could see Dodge and what he intended, and Dodge himself reported that he had seen most of the firefighters come near enough to his circle of fire to see his signals. A more plausible explanation is that by this point Dodge had simply lost much of his credibility. A leader’s credibility can be defined as the authority to make binding decisions based on a record of having made them well before.
Dodge was crew chief by virtue of the latter. But in less than an hour, his credibility had been shattered. His decision on where to land had placed the men behind a dangerous fire. They had marched toward it, then moved around it, and finally raced from it. The accumulation of erroneous decisions finally made his latest action – the lifesaving one – too dubious to accept. Dodge’s credibility had collapsed; worse, he had not yet realized it. By implication: If you have made several problematic decisions in a row, be prepared to have your leadership questioned.
It may be a moment of personal trial, a point when the cooperation of others is most needed but least forthcoming. A C r e d i b i l i t y Spiral Missteps and Few Words EXACERBATING DODGE’S DOWNWARD credibility spiral were two small missteps, too minor to draw much notice at the time but arguably big enough to accelerate the downspin. First; when Dodge returned to the drop site at the upper end of Mann Gulch to retrieve his food, he sent his crew on without him for a few minutes, relinquishing his leadership. Thus he momentarily commanded the battle from behind the lines, not the front.
In pondering why the generals in World War I so often displayed incompetence in command, Peter Drucker turned to the explanation offered by his own high school history teacher, a wounded veteran of the Great War: “Because not enough generals were killed; they stayed way behind the lines and let others do the fighting and dying. ” Page 5 of 9 Second, when Dodge told his men to drop their shovels and axes, he was asking them to give up a large part of what defined them as a crew under his command; he was, in other words,, ordering his soldiers to shed their uniforms.
In both instances, Dodge’s actions made sound logistical sense. The first permitted a more rapid movement toward the safety of the Missouri River; the second allowed a more rapid movement away from the accelerating blaze. Yet both chipped away at Dodge’s credibility when he most needed it later. A solution lay not necessarily in avoiding such action, for in this instance it is hard to imagine not ordering the equipment disposal, but in a persuasive communication of why he acted thus. But probably most damaging to Dodge’s credibility was a management style that fostered little twoway communication.
Wagner Dodge was a boss of few words, a person who neither expected much information from his people nor gave much in return. As the men flew over Mann Gulch, sixteen pairs of eyes and ears were gathering information on the conditions below, and some might have guessed that the swirling smoke and air turbulence signaled dangerous ground conditions. Yet Dodge relied on only a single pair of eyes, his own. Similarly, in moving toward the fire, then around it, and finally away from it, others reached their own assessment of the best way out. Yet in no case did Dodge ask for their appraisal.
He had a diverse human information system at his disposal but chose to avail himself of none of it. Imagine, by way of analogy, a chief executive who never asks his salespeople what they are hearing from their customers or a hospital president who fails to ask his nurses what they are learning from their patients. At the same time, Dodge also gave little information. He did not share his appraisals, barely explained his actions, scarcely even communicated his growing alarm. “Dodge has a characteristic in him,” Rumsey would later tell the Board of Review. “It is hard to tell what he is thinking. When Dodge sent his crew members toward the mouth of the gulch after the brief reconnaissance of the fire, he instructed them to move out of the “thick reproduction” because it was a “death trap,” Sallee later reported. But otherwise he dispensed little information, and Rumsey and Sallee observed that he did not even look particularly worried. When he suddenly reversed course near the mouth of the gulch and, the crew was moving uphill, Navon, the former paratrooper, was still taking snapshots. Dodge testified at the hearing that he had not communicated directly with his men from the time he retreated. or his food until he ordered them to drop all their equipment. Near the end, as the crew was overtaken by crisis and panic, circumstances permitted little discussion. But up until that time, communication had been feasible. Without revealing his thinking when it could be shared, Dodge denied his crew members, especially those not familiar with him, an opportunity to appreciate the quality of his mind. They had no other way of knowing, except by reputation, whether his decisions were rational or impulsive, calculated or impetuous.
Later, when the quality of his mind did display itself in a brilliant invention-the escape fire – his thinking was still too much of a cipher to those whose trust he urgently required. By implication: If you want trust and compliance when the need for them cannot be fully explained, explain yourself early. If you need information on which you must soon act, ask for it soon. Being a person of few words may be fine in a technical position, but it is a prescription for disaster in a position of leadership. Other Escape Fires
W A G N E R D O D G E C O U L D never have anticipated the specific events in Mann Gulch. Yet it is instructive to ask what he might have done in June and July to prepare for them, not knowing precisely what lay ahead but anticipating the possibility that flawless action and effective leadership were likely to be essential for whatever came along. Dodge masterminded a winning idea that could have saved the entire enterprise: The Board of Review concluded that all of his men would have survived if they had “heeded Dodge’s efforts to get them to go into the escape fire area. But when the innovation was ready for use, nobody believed it could. succeed. And Dodge’s escape fire was a genuine innovation. Native Americans on the Great Plains had invented the concept a century earlier, and since the Mann Gulch disaster it has become a standard lifesaving measure in the official survival repertoire. But before 1949, the Forest Service did not train its smoke jumpers in setting escape fires, and on August 5, 1949, nobody in Mann Gulch had ever heard of the tactic. Page 6 of 9 Why was it that Dodge was the only member of his sixteen man force to invent the escape fire?
All found themselves in the same tightening vise, all saw that their time was almost up, all desperately sought a way out. Yet only Dodge seemingly had the capacity to discover the lifesaving solution. When asked how he had come on the idea of the escape fire, he replied, “It just seemed the logical thing to do. ” Two explanations for the failure of simultaneous invention come to mind, both pointing to what Dodge might have done earlier in the summer. First, he was an autocrat, an instruction giver, and once in the gulch there might have been no other way to lead.
But with earlier opportunities to meld a team and mold a culture, he might have encouraged each member to learn how to reach his own judgments and make his own decisions. This is not to say that fostering individual discretion is the same as allowing discretionary direction. The challenge for Dodge was to instill individual judgment while aligning it around common purpose. Empowering team members to reach their own decisions that will simultaneously pull the team in the same direction is no easy task. It is a learned capacity Dodge would have had to have cultivated well before August 5.
A second explanation again refers to Dodge’s style as a man of few words. He had fought fires for nine years and had been a crew foreman since 1945. Some on his crew had combated fires for less than three months. Sallee and Rumsey were making their first smoke jump. Dodge’s mind held memories of hundreds of fire, soil, forest, and wind conditions he had seen, dozens o f strategies he knew to have worked, and some he had seen fail. It was this repository of practical experience that had led to his promotion to crew chief-and-it was this storehouse he had at the ready when he realized that he and his crew had but a moment to rescue themselves.
Unfortunately, though, it was his database alone. Dodge might have shared his wisdom earlier, telling and retelling the amazing, sometimes curious, occasionally disastrous stories of his fires of the past. Secondhand accounts can never fully substitute for the personal seasoning of years on the front line, but they can furnish a diverse set of prior conditions against which to test the present. In being tight with words, Dodge denied his men the benefit of his nine years of experience. The value of downward communication is amply confirmed in any number of studies.
Research on flight crew performance during cockpit simulations, for instance, has revealed that leaders of higherperformance cockpit crews share more plans; offer more predictions, describe more options, sound more warnings, and provide more explanations. 3 By implication: If you expect those who work for you to exercise their own judgment, provide them with the decision making experience now. If you count on them to understand the conditions a s best they can, share your past experience with them now. If your leadership depends on theirs, devolving responsibility and sharing stories is a foundation upon which it will reside.
Thinking strategically when confronted with a crisis or challenge is a learned skill that requires sustained seasoning. The Leader’s Ally AS A THOUGHT experiment, a “what if” analysis, ask yourself what would have happened if Sallee or Rumsey had followed Dodge’s blandishments. Or suppose Dodge had cultivated a loyal ally or second in command whose faith was virtually unshakable. If Sallee, the next in line as the crew raced up the gulch, had been that ally and had entered the circle of fire, others almost certainly would have followed as well.
The premise is simple: Everybody is crazy from time to time, but it is rare that two people are at the same moment. This was one of the discoveries of the famous experiment by Solomon Asch; If everybody around you says that line A is longer than line B when the objective fact is obviously the opposite, you will cave in. But if you have just one other doubter, just one naysayer who breaks the mold, you are emboldened to break it too. If Sallee, as the loyal ally, had joined Dodge, others would have been more likely to be lured into the escape circle, and we might well have never heard of a fire in Mann Gulch.
By implication: If you have difficult decisions to make and insufficient time to explain them, a key to implementation may be loyal allies who are sure to execute them through thick or thin. Establishing those allies now is the only way to ensure that their support will be at the ready when needed, and it will sometimes be needed when it is far too late to be created. Page 7 of 9 Pa nic and Performance SOME OF DODGE’S crew members might have rushed by him and his lifesaving fire less from a rational calculus and more out of sheer panic. Sallee and Rumsey thought Dodge must be crazy to be starting a new fire.
But others, by the time they neared Dodge’s fire, were surely being driven by terror, and in such a state rational judgment is an early casualty. Psychologists tell us that panic sets in when the mind succumbs to stress and fails to take in new information about a threatening event, or fails for similar reasons to take advantage of prior experience germane to the threat. Either way, it is hard to imagine that the thirteen men behind Sallee and Rumsey, those whose backs were even closer to the raging flames, were not overwhelmed with fear.
As panic short-circuits the mind, our mental processors grind to a halt. Then, unable to reach an informed judgment on what to do next, we reach into our memories for what worked well before. A psychologist’s label for this is “reversion to last learned behavior. ” If we manufacture mainframe computers but the market is sinking and our creditors and investors are demanding more, let’s do again what has been key to our success in the past: making mainframes. Similarly, if we have a wall of flame behind us, running from it, a successful strategy in. he past, would seem to make good sense now. Anybody near a raging bonfire knows to back off; anybody caught in a building fire knows to rush out. Yet in this instance what made perfect sense in the past would prove disastrous in the present. Panic overwhelms smart decision making, but it is also true that modest levels of stress can improve it. This is the curvilinear relationship between stress and performance, as shown in Figure 2. 2. To the left of the panic point, the adrenaline feed concentrates the mind, mobilizes energies, and eliminates distractions.
To the right of the panic point, however, we no longer think so clearly, too overwhelmed by stress to reason or calcuIate. 4 This can explain the firefighters’ flight past Dodge, but how is that Dodge was able to keep such a cool head when others could not? An explanation comes from a study of urban firefighters, those who ride trucks rather than jump aircraft to reach a blaze. Focused on department captains and lieutenants, the study revealed that the performance of experienced officers improves under high uncertainty and stress, while the performance of inexperienced officers declines.
This helps us understand why Dodge’s experienced intellect invented the escape fire while others were focused only on flight, It is also a reminder again that experience is a critical foundation of leadership. A warning is contained therein as well: Modestly stressful periods can enhance productivity-we all know of managers who are forever fostering minor crises to get things done But highly stressful periods worsen the performance of inexperienced people if they are pressed beyond their panic point.
By implication: In periods of anxiety and stress, it is your least experienced associates who will reach the panic zone first. Providing newcomers with as much early training and mentoring as possible i s one way of moving their panic point well to the right when the heat is on. Page 8 of 9 Cul ture a nd Cohesion U N D E R F O R E S T S E R V I C E policy, Dodge took command of a just-assembled crew as he climbed o n board the aircraft. While this might appear odd to those who work in an age of dedicated teamwork, the just-in-time assemblage ensured each person maximal rest time between events.
It also ensured administrative flexibility, since crew dispatches varied with the scope of each fire and could range from two men to several planeloads. Managerial careers are filled with comparable events. Like Dodge, you have probably found yourself more than once assigned to oversee a group of people with whom you are little familiar and within which acquaintanceship is equally scarce. You have just been promoted, rotated, relocated, or otherwise reassigned, and those who now report to you may predate you by no more than days.
You are a church minister who has taken over a congregation with an ever-changing membership, a fastfood manager who has taken over a franchise with an everchurning workforce, or maybe a soccer coach who has taken over a team whose players are as unfamiliar to one another as they are to you. Seen through today’s lens, Dodge would have surely preferred it otherwise. Building a self-contained, mutually reliant team is one of the proven ways of delivering optimal performance under duress. But it requires months, even years to develop the culture and cohesion that are the engines of such work-team performance.
Given the seasonal nature of his business, the best Dodge might have done, had policy allowed it, was to form a dedicated team in June within which he could have built some unity by August. Building a team with its own culture and cohesion brings another key advantage. For wellformed, highly committed groups, the panic point is shifted far to the right. As stress intensifies, their performance curve continues to rise well after others have plummeted. They can endure extraordinary threats with an equanimity that individuals and poorly developed groups could never bear.
French Resistance cells challenging the German occupiers during World War II were a case in point, as were the Allied fighting units that landed on the beaches of German-held Normandy. Or consider one of the most famous military attacks of all, George E. Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. After the Union army had stalemated the Confederate forces during two days o f pitched battle in July 1863, Robert E. Lee readied his rebel forces for one final, decisive blow against the Union center. It was to be a daunting task.
Twelve thousand troops under Pickett’s command were to march across an open mile of farmland. They would have artillery support, but they would also be assaulting a well-fortified Union line behind a stone wall on an extended ridge. General James Longstreet, ordered by Lee to execute the attack, was convinced of impending failure. The thousands of combat veterans of Virginia and North Carolina who were assembling to mount the attack could see it might well be their last. Yet in full view of Union cannons and infantry, the Confederate troops marched the terrible mile.
Pickett’s charge ended in bitter defeat, with all but one of his thirty-two regimental and field officers killed or wounded and half his troops down or gone. But the men of the Army of Northern Virginia, loyal to their regimental commanders and comrades, went unflinchingly into the devastating fire. Collectively, they did what neither individuals nor less well-formed teams could ever do. By implication: If your organization is facing a period of uncertainty, change, or stress, now is the time to build a strong culture with good lines of interior communication, mutual understanding, and shared obligation.
A clear sense of common purpose and a well-formed camaraderie are essential ingredients to ensure that your team, your organization, or your company will perform to its utmost when it is most needed. Our actions today may make the difference between success or failure tomorrow. The challenge is to anticipate what problems lie ahead and what preparatory steps are required now to meet them later. Enabling all to make informed decisions, informing all to understand your decisions, and organizing all to discipline their decisions are among the enduring legacies of Wagner Dodge’s fifty-six-minute struggle for survival in Mann Gulch. Page 9 of 9