At first they believed the fire would be easy to control. In August 1949, fifteen smokejumpers parachuted into a forest fire in a remote place called Mann Gulch, Montana. The situation appeared routine enough that the team's leader, Wagner (Wag) Dodge, paused to eat his dinner before mobilizing to fight the blaze. But circumstances quickly took a perilous turn. The fire gained in size and fury, and Wag Dodge suddenly realized that he and his men were in grave danger. He instructed the men to drop their tools in an attempt to outrun the fire. But it spread too rapidly, and in a brilliant flash of intuition, Dodge set a small fire in front of the raging inferno and called to his team to lay down with him in the ashes. The confused and terrified men failed to follow Dodge's lead and instead sprinted frantically to try to stay ahead of the conflagration. Thirteen of them died. Dodge's escape fire, however, deprived the main blaze of fuel, and it leapt over him. He survived unhurt.
In one dramatic instant at Mann Gulch, Wag Dodge demonstrated both the extreme potential benefit and the occasional adverse downside of using intuition in decision making. Dodge proved that as a leader, sometimes it is important to go with your gut- but not always.
In his bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell analyzes this powerful phenomenon of intuitive decision making, of gut-level choices made in a "blink." Gladwell explains that it is the part of our brain known as the adaptive unconscious that enables us to leap to frequently correct conclusions by quickly and efficiently processing huge amounts of data. Indeed, our very survival as human beings depends on our ability to engage in this process of rapid cognition.
Despite our general bias towards thoroughness in decision making- we usually assume that the quality of a decision is in direct proportion to the time and effort that went into making it- Gladwell says, "… decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately."
The key to making consistently good intuitive decisions is training and experience. In the case of Wag Dodge, he had spent many more years as a smokejumper than most of the men he led at Mann Gulch. He soon understood the fire was not routine based on pattern recognition from previous fires. His expertise told him that the team could not outrun the fire while carrying their tools and, soon, that they could not outrun the fire at all. While he had never seen an escape fire used before, again, something in his long experience told him that such a technique just might work. He was right. Gladwell says, "This is the gift of training and expertise- the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience."
But it would be foolish for a leader to rely on intuition under every circumstance, for two reasons. First, our instincts can sometimes be disrupted and lead us astray. In other words, sometimes we are wrong. Second, if we rely on gut decisions but fail to communicate our reasoning to our teams and to bring them along- as the Mann Gulch scenario so tragically demonstrates- we will fail in our objectives.
Gladwell writes, "Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious." For example, how often do you make a really good decision when you are in an emotional state of mind, frightened, angry or upset? What about decisions made when you are incredibly rushed for time? Self-awareness and open acknowledgement that conditions may not be ideal for a gut-level decision can go a long way toward guiding us to a more deliberative process and a potentially better outcome.
And if our team does not understand what we are doing or why, then we have failed a critical test of leadership as well. For Wag Dodge, a number of important factors worked against him in his effort to make an intuitive decision to save his team. Dodge was generally described as an extremely poor communicator, a "man of few words." The team therefore did not know him well to begin with. His team read his actions in taking time to eat his dinner as an indication that all was well. When Dodge quickly discerned that he was wrong in his initial assessment of the fire, he then became pressed for time to convey his urgency to the team. When he called to the men to join him in the escape fire, because they did not know or fully trust him, they could not make sense of his behavior. Disaster resulted.
In the end, we as leaders need to determine when to rely on our intuitive instincts and when to be more thorough in our approach. No two situations are exactly alike and there is no magic formula. Malcolm Gladwell argues that judgment and understanding are critical. He writes, "Judgment matters; it is what separates winners from losers," and, "The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter." In using our judgment and understanding, regardless of our decision making process, we need to communicate effectively to bring our teams with us. So the next time you face a critical decision, just remember: sometimes it is important to go with your gut- but not always.