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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Leadership without leaders: Lessons from disaster relief

- Frank Luby

Shawnee OK.JPG

One week after an EF4 tornado destroyed Marysville, Indiana in March 2012, I performed clean-up work as part of a United Way effort. As the sun set through the mangled trees on that Saturday afternoon, another volunteer made a comment that has stuck with me ever since.

“You know, it’s amazing how much you can get done when there are no leaders around,” he said.

His comment triggered questions I’d never thought to ask before this experience.

How can a group of total strangers from very diverse backgrounds spontaneously organize themselves and efficiently complete a daunting task without anyone serving as a leader?

Better yet, why can’t work be like this?

To answer the latter question first, I believe work can be like this. Over the last 30 years, I have worked in many different environments – from stocking shelves at a Winn-Dixie to traveling the world for eight years as a partner in a global management consulting firm. Thinking back, I can see many opportunities where “leadership without leaders” would have made good things even better. Moving forward, I’m trying to create that kind of environment.

But how? Someone who wants to practice “leadership without leaders” usually follows three steps that sound deceptively simple but require a lot of effort:

  • Create a vision (or mission or story) that self-selects the right talent and customers

  • Live, protect, and defend that vision

  • Otherwise, stay out of the way

The vision is not to be confused with those cumbersome, Dilbert-worthy vision or mission statements you see framed nicely on a wall. It is whatever gives the work its sense of purpose, the story people want to become part of. It is the idea or premise that makes people willing to sacrifice and to make sound choices, on their own, without asking permission, filling out paperwork, or fearing repercussions.

No, this is not utopia or anarchy. It’s real. It works.

Let’s take a close look at what happens onsite during a disaster relief effort. I have taken part in several, starting with the Joplin tornado in May 2011, one of the most destructive storms in US history.

Disaster relief efforts are not staged, “build the tallest tower” teamwork events at some corporate retreat, nor are they social experiments run by psychology professors. They solve very real and urgent problems for homeowners who may not have the financial resources, the insurance coverage, the network of friends and family, or in some cases even the emotional strength to go back to where their houses once stood and start picking up the pieces.

Disaster relief work creates value and solves problems.

We’ll start with the disaster area “office”. Think of a war zone, a similarity that my friends who are combat veterans can attest to. The success of veteran-centric response organizations like Team Rubicon is founded on this basis. If you haven’t been to combat, the images from television or movies should give you an accurate picture.

Joplin look west toward hospital.JPG

In Joplin, and in Moore two years later, we were surrounded by immense, unimaginable devastation as far as the eye could see. This picture below is from Joplin in July 2011, six weeks after the tornado. The distant building to the left of center – the remnants of the St. John’s Regional Medical Center – is almost a mile away, showing you how the tornado flattened an entire neighborhood:

So for us to have leadership without leaders even in this chaos, what happens once you get to your office, the homeowner’s site? Let’s phrase that in business terms.

  • Priorities. We start by conducting a quick 80/20 solution analysis and dividing up the work amongst ourselves in order to accomplish the most good in the least amount of time. Priorities change as we make quick progress and discover new information, all with the mission in mind. It still fascinates me how smoothly this happens, even though most volunteers are complete strangers who meet at the site for the very first time. This becomes our tangible mission, our story.

  • Invisible guidance. Like that volunteer in Marysville said, there are no leaders, which means there is no one running around acting “in charge”. Yes, there is some supervision. The responsible agencies such as AmeriCorps or United Way provide obligatory safety briefings and instructions on the homeowner’s wishes (“save these things if you find them” or “don’t enter this area”). Beyond that, the supervision is largely invisible and for most of the day, irrelevant. And I mean those two words as compliments, not criticism. It’s the shared mission, the story, which provides the leadership. Remember Rule #3 above. “Otherwise, stay out of the way.”

  • Self-delegation. Onsite, no one ever says “that’s not my job” and most volunteers create their own jobs. You have people cutting up downed trees, people smashing walls and roofing into smaller pieces others can carry away, and people focused on digging out, assessing, and removing larger objects such as furniture and appliances. But not everyone is on the foundation. One older volunteer stood out on my first day in Joplin. The conditions were brutal: no shade, dusty, and humid with temps over 100 degrees. She looked immaculate, never broke a sweat, and never touched a piece of debris. What did she do? She was a one-person support team. She made sure the small tent next to the site always had water or sports drinks in the coolers. She made sure the homeowner’s mementos got set aside, a critical piece during these events. Some great contributions don’t involve the proverbial “heavy lifting”. Your people know their strengths and weaknesses. When they play to their strengths, they can make their best contributions. Supporting roles keep people’s minds and time free for other tasks they are better suited for.

  • Pride in work. This one is tougher to replicate. It depends on the team’s understanding the ultimate goal of the project and how it contributes to the company story, the overall mission. Onsite, there are no ranks, no gold stars or trophies, and no credit. Nor are any sought. No one keeps score. The result itself is the measure of accountability: a broom-clean basement or foundation, a patched roof, a gutted house before the sun sets. Your teams need to know their impact, what will make them proud to call the project their own. Every project has a purpose, and every person needs to know the impact of that purpose to truly lead themselves.

  • Meetings. Meetings are for those organizing the larger effort. Onsite, during your project, you will never ever take part in a meeting. You are told what needs to happen (“clean the foundation” or “gut the house”). With Team Rubicon you may get a crisper assignment or an explanation, but in most cases, you figure it out from there. Except for occasional brief breaks (self-determined) and a pause for lunch, people work all the time until the project is finished. Businesses interrupt projects with progress reports and status meetings or meetings on unrelated topics. Why? These meetings delay completion. They interrupt momentum, break focus, and halt progress. The project sits unfinished, while its team does … what? The benefits of a progress meeting are marginal at best, and outweighed by the negative impact in terms of lost time and disrupted flow.

  • The right tools. There is also nothing extraneous on a site. If your jobsite has a shovel, wheelbarrow, or truck sitting idle, odds are it won’t be there a few minutes later. It will be in use at another jobsite. Ditto for people, who move across the street to another site if they think they could contribute more over there. Your projects are fluid, and different phases have different needs. Don’t be afraid to move idle resources.

  • Esprit de corps. The jobsite is not an ant colony or robotic assembly line, devoid of emotion. For many volunteers, it is more like a full day shared in the spirit of the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano: We laughed. We cried. We thought. We made friends. Ask anyone who has done this dirty job – especially people who do it again and again – and the sentiment is nearly unanimous: it is one of the most rewarding experiences they will ever have. If your teams believe in their projects and believe in each other - and are allowed to work together instead of within a rigid structure - they can build this camaraderie. This helps with attrition, morale, and myriad other company issues.

Still think this sounds utopian? Then I highly recommend two books: Freedom, Inc. and Rework . They describe in detail how and why companies have thrived with similar models. Two enlightening cases in Freedom, Inc. are the vision that helped Bill Gore build W. L. Gore & Associates (the makers of Gore-Tex) and the philosophy Bob Davids instilled in his companies, such as Radica Games and Sea Smoke Cellars.

“Leadership without leaders” creates an attractive, fulfilling, inspiring, and productive environment.

So I’ll ask again, even more broadly: why can’t all work be like this?

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. He is currently writing a book on his experiences as a disaster relief volunteer. To learn more about Present Tense LLC, please visit us at and follow our regular blogs and posts.

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