August 5th, 1949, Mann Gulch, Montana, USA – Big Sky Country – on the shores of the Missouri River, amidst thousands of acres of trees and brush and scrub.
It was there that 13 young smokejumpers, elite firefighters who were battling a raging forest fire, died when the wind changed direction, bringing a wall of flame that would send them to their doom.
That’s the when, the where and the what, but what about the why? Why did these men die when they need not have perished?
Examining the scene and speaking with the survivors, the investigators discovered an unexpected scenario. They found a man who died with his shovel in his hand, and another within an arm’s reach of his. Another still, carried a heavy back pack containing his personal belongings and equipment. It was as if they ran through ground that felt hotter than hell, the acrid smoke of pine and spruce burning their nose and blinding them to the path ahead, ears ringing as trees crashed and sap exploded, as they were deafened by the roar of air being sucked into the inferno, it was as if some part of their brain was still thinking “I need to find somewhere safe to put my saw.”
Think about that. You find yourself trapped in an unearthly incarnation of hell itself, and there you are trying to find somewhere safe to put your saw.
It turns out this is not uncommon. Investigators concluded that the smokejumpers didn’t realise that the circumstances in which they found themselves had changed and that what had made them successful before was different than what would make them successful in the new, dangerous reality they faced.
Their axes and shovels and saws were their old tools. The tools they needed when the wind changed were their right and left legs. In that crucial moment, all they needed to do was to get from where they were to somewhere safe, and their legs were what would have gotten them there.
The lesson from Mann Gulch was that the forest fire fighters needed to learn how to drop tools and run.
How often is that true of us? When in your life have you been buffeted by the winds of change? When has your vision been obscured by the smoke of fires burning around you? When have you been pulled in all directions or pushed, perhaps unknowingly, in new ones?
Change can feel hard. Karl Weick, writing in Administrative Science Quearterly, (June 1996) suggests many reasons why, including these four:
- Lack of awareness of reality: we may not realise that our circumstances have actually changed. As Dorothy observed in the Wizard of Oz “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore!” We don’t always know when we are not in Kansas anymore.
- Self-justification: we may have a high level of confidence in the way we have done things in the past because we have been successful. Certain tools give us confidence and we feel safer with them in hand. Our Achilles heel is that we don’t always assess how useful these tools will be in the future. It is hard to not default to how we have always coped.
- Lack of skill at learning: we need to remember that that we aren’t always good or practiced at learning, as learning involves dropping old tools and picking up new ones. How often do we consciously learn something new? How good are we at learning something new, while under great stress or duress?
- Fear of failure: sometimes dropping tools and running is seen as a sign of failure rather than the right thing to do when our context changes. We often forget, at our peril, that “discretion can be the better part of valour” and that it can be better to survive to fight another day. We also don’t appreciate what dropping tools and/or picking up new ones will give us. We are not always clear on cause and effect relationships. We are not always clear that “if I do this, that will happen” or that “if I do that, this won’t happen.”
George Santayana said “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” History is replete with examples.
- Hitler didn’t learn from Napoleon’s experience in Russia in winter.
- Bush didn’t learn from America’s involvement in Vietnam before invading Iraq and Afghanistan.
- On 6 July, 1994, on Storm King Mountain, Colorado, 12 more smokejumpers perished in the so-called South Canyon blaze when they didn’t heed the lesson of Mann Gulch.
I challenge you to consider this as you think about what will make you successful in the year:
- What tools are you using that you need to keep?
- What tools do you need to pick up?
- What tools do you need to drop?
Do not fail to learn the lessons of your life. Do not fail to learn how and when to Drop Tools and Run.
Contact us to today to discover how leadership coaching can help you learn how and when to drop tools and run.