Date(s) - 01/19/2022
8:00 pm - 9:15 pm


Mistaken Priorities When the Mission is Paramount & the Roles of Leadership and HRER in Changing Lives

January 19, 2021, at 8:00 p.m. – 9:15 p.m., Eastern time


Roland L. Bessette, J.D.


On August 5, 1949, a crew of smokejumpers was dispatched from a U.S. Fire Service station in Missoula, Montana, to control what was projected as a routine fire in a chimney-shaped drainage known as Mann Gulch. Within two hours, the fire blew up, roared up the gulch, and overtook 13 of the men. Three survived. The mission and organizational structure of the USFS, and decisions made that day will be discussed and adapted as lessons for leaders and HRER professionals.

The event has been a staple in leadership seminars and the subject of studies by the Harvard Business School, Karl Weick (Ross School of Business), Michael Useem (UPenn) and others.  The discussion will include mention of Norman McLean’s book about the event; Young Men & Fire, and how his distortions resulted in subsequent generations of inaccurate interpretations. The leaders who made decisions that day and the performance of the U.S. Fire Service have often been fictionalized and even parodied for the sake of casting them as failures. A clearer view of what occurred that day provides many takeaways for leaders and HRER staff. The event, those who were in leadership positions, and the USFS warrant an accurate assessment.

This webinar will include discussions of organizational history and structure of the USFS, the mission as paramount, selection, training, team building, discipline and correction, leadership, and doing what is in the best interest of employees. The price paid by the men who died at Mann Gulch is obvious. The cost to the three men who survived was less apparent. Lessons learned and how the USFS used the experience to improve its budgeting, contribute to advances in technology, and shift the values in its approach from mission to safety for firefighters will be discussed. In essence, the USFS went from a view that all fires could be overcome to retreat when crews could not be protected. Also, the differences between retrospective considerations and root cause analyses and relevant cautions when investigative boards are convened will be discussed. Borrowing from the Board of Investigation convened after the Mann Gulch fire:

It is difficult to foretell the future. It is going to be difficult not to take the tragedy as the substance. We must determine what conditions were when they were planning on jumping; what were the conditions when Dodge was going down the gulch. We will have to judge the different steps as we go along. That is why some of the public might be critical. They might take the fact that the tragedy did occur as proof that everything was dangerous.

Guidance from Carl Gustafson, Chief of the Washington Office Division of Fire Control, U.S. Forest Service, during the Board of Review held in Missoula, Montana, September 26-28, 1949[i], Transcript page 4.

This webinar will consider the responsibilities of employers, and the roles of leaders and HRER staff. It will be a lively session intended to provide a far-reaching perspective and consideration of consequences when situations are handled properly, results when they are not, and the inevitability of well-intentioned misjudgments and outcomes derived from many pieces with none of them ominous until a tipping point is reached and results in collapse. Blame-assessment is easy with bad outcomes. Aside from providing excuses and scapegoats, what is valid about such processes?


  • Brief history of the USFS and the smokejumper program.
  • Selection and team-building processes.
  • The impact of budget constraints: cheap is expensive.
  • Leadership and follow-through.
  • Discipline and correction in real time.
  • The unexpected, innovation, and resistance.
  • The aftermath: employees are the priority.
  • The investigation: aiming for fact-finding and avoiding blame-assessment.
  • The impact on the three survivors.
  • Learning from events and outcomes that did not go as intended.
  • The legacy.

SHRM/HRCI Recertification Credits

Approval pending

Pre-Workshop Assignments

For the purpose of gaining adequate background information (and if you have the time and are so inclined) read Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn’t Be Won


No cost for VLERA members

$5.00 cost for non-members


This webinar will be held via Zoom. Zoom link will be provided via e-mail the day of the presentation.

As a VLERA member, please be sure you are logged in before registering for the event. To reserve your space, click on the following link and complete the registration form on the bottom of the page:

Presenter Bio

Roland L. Bessette, J.D.

Roland L. Bessette. J.D. is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State. Roland received a B.A. degree in Journalism from Wayne State University, and a JD from the Michigan State University College of Law. He is a veteran. He retired from a Senior Executive position as Regional Counsel for the states of Michigan and Wisconsin for the Department of Veterans Affairs during 2013 and began with Penn State during 2015. He teaches HRER 501, 504 and 811. He served as Chair of the Management Advisory Counsel, Chair of the Office of General Counsel’s Leadership Development Program. His experience includes hundreds of arbitrations and matters before the MSPB, EEOC and OSC. Those factors run into the thousands in cases he has overseen and those about which he has been consulted.

[i] Board of Review, Transcript, p. 4.


Bookings are closed for this event.

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