On July 2, 1996 lighting ignited a small fire about 7 miles from Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It smoldered and grew slowly in the remote, mountainous location.  By July 5th, however, residents detected the now rapidly growing fire and firefighters were called in.  They battled the blaze for two days.  Before the South Canyon fire was brought under control on July 6th it tragically claimed the lives of 14 men and women.  The subsequent investigation determined that poor decisions by team leaders were at least partially responsible for the tremendous loss of life.

To identify the sources of good and bad leadership decisions, a study focused on ten decisions made by leaders of the firefighting crews.  While this investigation focused on firefighters, leaders in almost all organizations find themselves facing consequential decisions under extremely trying circumstances.  These findings may, therefore, provide all leaders with insights into how to make better decisions under pressure.

Three factors were found to contribute to suboptimal decisions by team leaders:

  • Under prepared. Several team leaders received ‘battlefield’ promotions during the fire, and thus were not adequately prepared for the situations they faced. It is important for leaders to receive training focusing on situational awareness and making clear-minded decisions in the presence of pressure prior to placing them in pressured situations.
  • Acute stress. Being thrown in the deep end of a pool and told to swim has led to the development of few Olympic champions.  A better strategy would be to introduce leaders to stressful situations progressively and allow them open discussions with veterans with experience in these environments. If potential crisis scenarios can be anticipated, then training and practice are critical for success, or even survival.
  • Ambiguous authority. Amidst the chaos of South Canyon fire, it was never clear who was in charge of a particular situation.  For leaders to make good decisions, organizations must have a clear chain of command and open communication channels.

Four elements were present when leaders made good decisions:

  • Strategic thinking. Good decisions are based on careful analysis of good information and a focus on clear, intentional outcomes.
  • Resource mobilization. Fast moving and quickly changing environments require a leader to not only know the resources available for executing intended actions, but how to mobilize those resources with maximum efficiency and effect.
  • Effective execution. A sound strategy and appropriate resources are only part of the good decision equation. A leader must orchestrated the actions of skilled team members in a timely fashion to achieve the objective.  This requires knowing what decisions need to be made and when in order to initiate and sustain appropriate actions.  This also requires having contingencies in place once the actions are undertaken.
  • Personal selflessness. Good decisions are made when a leader subordinates self-interest for the collective purpose of the mission and good of the team.   

Reference

Cook, J. R., Sutton, L., & Useem, M. (2005). Developing Leaders for Decision Making Under Stress: Wildland Firefighters in the South Canyon Fire and Its Aftermath. Academy of Management Learning & Education4(4), 461–485.