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Developing Leaders for Decision Making under Stress: Wildland Firefighters in the South Canyon Fire and Its Aftermath

Michael Useem, James Cook and Larry Sutton
Academy of Management Learning & Education
Vol. 4, No. 4 (Dec., 2005), pp. 461-485
Published by: Academy of Management
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40214348
Page Count: 25
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Developing Leaders for Decision Making under Stress: Wildland Firefighters in the South Canyon Fire and Its Aftermath
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Abstract

To identify the sources of ineffective leadership decisions, we focus on ten decisions made by a leader of a wildland firefighter crew during the fatal South Canyon fire of July 5-6, 1996. The decisions of team leaders in fire zones are unusually clear-cut and consequential for the goals of the enterprise, but they are not unlike decisions faced by managers of most organizations. We suggest that three factors—underpreparation, acute stress, and ambiguous authority—can result in suboptimal decisions by team leaders on a fireline. Through detailed evaluation of the team leader's ten most consequential decisions in the South Canyon fire, we conclude that five were relatively optimal for the triple objectives of safety, speed, and suppression, but five others proved suboptimal. Much of their suboptimality is traced to the fact that the team leader was undertrained for leadership decision making, faced intense stress, and operated without clear authority. In the wake of this firefighting disaster—14 men and women lost their lives—the fire service created a development program using both classroom and experiential methods for preparing its leaders to make good and timely decisions. The South Canyon fire and its aftermath point to the value of explicit preparation in leadership decisions by both fire services and business schools as part of their efforts to enhance strategic thinking and other essential leadership attributes for achieving organizational goals in high stress environments.

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