Lessons from Mann Gulch: Navigating Business Turnarounds

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Stephen Barnes RTP® | Byronvale Advisors

Mann Gulch, a remote and rugged area in the Montana wilderness, may seem like an unlikely place to draw lessons for business turnarounds. However, the tragic events that unfolded there in 1949 offer valuable insights into the challenges, strategies, and mindset required when steering a struggling business toward recovery and success. However, there are parallels between the Mann Gulch disaster and the process of turning around a struggling business.

Part I: The Mann Gulch Tragedy

On August 5, 1949, a group of smokejumpers embarked on what appeared to be a typical wildfire-fighting mission in Mann Gulch, a remote and rugged area located in the Montana wilderness. These smokejumpers were no ordinary firefighters; they were highly trained experts known for their courage and readiness to parachute into challenging and inaccessible terrain to combat wildfires.

The mission began as any other day in their line of duty, with the team parachuting into Mann Gulch in response to a wildfire threat. However, what seemed routine soon evolved into a harrowing ordeal as they encountered a wildfire (bushfire) that was more intense and unpredictable than they had ever anticipated.

As the team descended into Mann Gulch, they were met with a rapidly advancing wall of flames, driven by strong winds and fuelled by the dry, parched vegetation of the area. The situation deteriorated rapidly, and the smokejumpers found themselves trapped in the path of an inferno. The wildfire’s ferocity and swiftness left the crew with limited options for escape.

The harrowing conditions in Mann Gulch forced the smokejumpers to make split-second decisions, many of which involved life-or-death choices. In their desperate attempt to evade the raging fire, 16 of the 18 smokejumpers tragically lost their lives that fateful day, leaving behind a solemn reminder of the dangers they faced and the challenges they confronted in the line of duty.

…remaining calm under pressure has a direct link to lateral thinking and performance in crisis situations.

Edward de Bono

Grace under Pressure

The Mann Gulch tragedy serves as a poignant example of the unpredictability and dangers that wildfire fighters and first responders face when battling blazes in remote and rugged environments. The lessons drawn from this event extend beyond the realm of firefighting, offering valuable insights into leadership, decision-making, communication, teamwork, and learning from mistakes that are applicable to various fields, including business turnarounds.

1. Leadership and Decision-Making: The leader of the crew, Wagner Dodge, played a pivotal role in the disaster’s outcome. Dodge had to make split-second decisions that would impact the entire team and the future of firefighting. In the world of business turnarounds, leadership and decision-making are equally critical. A capable leader can be the difference between a successful turnaround and failure.

Key Takeaway: In business, leaders must make tough decisions based on the available information and adapt as circumstances change.

2. Communication: Effective communication was crucial for the Mann Gulch crew’s survival. Yet, miscommunication and confusion plagued their efforts. The same applies to business. Clear and open communication is vital in a turnaround situation, where employees, management, and stakeholders must work together to achieve a common goal.

Key Takeaway: Open and honest communication is the cornerstone of a successful business turnaround.

Mann Gulch: Montana wilderness

Part II: Business Turnarounds – Challenges and Strategies

1. Identifying the Fire:

Just as the Mann Gulch smokejumpers had to identify the fire, business leaders need to pinpoint the core issues affecting their company. It might be declining sales, operational inefficiencies, financial troubles, or any combination of these. Identifying the “fire” is the first step in initiating a turnaround.

Key Takeaway: Diagnosing the root problems is essential for addressing the challenges.

2. Quick Decision-Making:

In a turnaround, decisions must be made swiftly. Delay can exacerbate the situation. Just like Dodge in Mann Gulch, business leaders should be ready to adapt and make tough decisions under pressure.

Key Takeaway: Timely decision-making is critical when your business is in crisis.

3. Clear Communication:

Effective communication is equally essential in business turnarounds. Stakeholders, employees, and management must be on the same page regarding the company’s direction and the steps needed to achieve recovery.

Key Takeaway: Communicate openly and transparently to foster unity and motivate your team.

4. Leverage Existing Resources:

The Mann Gulch crew had to use their available tools and equipment to survive. Similarly, businesses undergoing a turnaround should leverage their existing assets and strengths. Rethinking and optimising current resources can help save time and money.

Key Takeaway: Make the most of what you have before seeking external solutions.

5. Seeking Expert Help:

In Mann Gulch, the arrival of a DC-3 aircraft provided the much-needed aerial support. In business, seeking expert advice from turnaround consultants and specialists can provide fresh perspectives and solutions to the challenges at hand.

Key Takeaway: Don’t hesitate to seek external expertise to navigate the complexities of a business turnaround.

Part III: The Power of Teamwork

The Mann Gulch disaster revealed the significance of teamwork and collaboration. The survivors of the fire were those who worked together and supported one another. In the business world, a united and motivated team is indispensable for a successful turnaround.

1. Building a Resilient Team:

Just as the Mann Gulch crew faced a life-threatening crisis together, your team should be resilient and prepared to weather the storm. A team with diverse skills and expertise can tackle the multifaceted challenges of a business turnaround more effectively.

Key Takeaway: Invest in building a strong, resilient team.

2. Motivating and Inspiring:

In Mann Gulch, leadership played a vital role in keeping the crew motivated. A turnaround leader should inspire the team, provide a vision of success, and instil confidence in the recovery process.

Key Takeaway: Leadership is not just about making decisions but also about motivating and inspiring the team.

Part IV: Learning from Mistakes

In the aftermath of the Mann Gulch tragedy, numerous investigations and studies were conducted to understand the mistakes that led to the disaster. Similarly, businesses should be open to conducting post-mortems to learn from their mistakes and improve future operations.

1. Root Cause Analysis:

To prevent future disasters, both in firefighting and business, it’s crucial to conduct a comprehensive analysis of what went wrong. Understanding the root causes allows you to implement preventative measures.

Key Takeaway: Examine past mistakes and determine their underlying causes.

2. Continuous Improvement:

The lessons learned from Mann Gulch led to significant changes in firefighting practices. Similarly, in business, continuous improvement is vital. After a turnaround, it’s essential to implement lasting changes that prevent the recurrence of the same issues.

Key Takeaway: Use the lessons from your turnaround to drive continuous improvement.


The tragic events at Mann Gulch provide a sobering backdrop for understanding the intricacies of business turnarounds. The lessons drawn from this remote Montana wilderness underscore the importance of leadership, communication, teamwork, quick decision-making, and the ability to learn from mistakes in the corporate world.

Business turnarounds are challenging, and they often require leaders to navigate through uncertain and perilous terrain. Just like the smokejumpers at Mann Gulch, business leaders must stay resilient, motivated, and adapt to the ever-changing environment. The power of a united team, guided by a capable leader, cannot be overstated.

In the end, the lessons from Mann Gulch remind us that even in the face of adversity, there is always an opportunity for recovery and success. Whether in the wilderness or the world of business, resilience, determination, and a commitment to learning can make all the difference when the flames of crisis threaten to consume us.

Stephen Barnes RTP® | Byronvale Advisors

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