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There are many leadership lessons to be learned in the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch in which 13 firefighters were killed. The story is well told by Norman Maclean in his book Young Men and Fire, analysed by Karl Weick in his article “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster, and discussed and applied to the health care system by Donald Berwick in a speech entitled “Escape Fire. Focusing on the need for sensemaking by organizations faced with changing conditions, Berwick highlights 5 pre-conditions described by Weick:

  1. Face reality – leaders need to lead the way in recognizing and naming the risks being faced.
  2. Drop current tools – leaders need to help the organization drop tools that aren’t helpful in meeting current risks and challenges and find other solutions.
  3. Stay in formation – leaders have a responsibility to keep people together, not leaving anyone out of finding ways to face present risks.
  4. Communicate – leaders have a role to play in ensuring that everyone is able to participate in open, civil and inclusive dialogue.
  5. Leadership – Organizations facing risks, challenges and change need competent leaders who help the group tackle items 1-4.

Please take the time to look up and read Berwick’s article, at least. And for some enjoyment, have a listen to folk singer James Keelaghan’s song about the Mann Gulch fire.

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