Distributed Leadership & Hurricane Harvey

“What is your leadership style?” is a common question in an interview. “I’m an autocratic, top-down, everything has to be run through me leader” is not generally considered to be a good answer. The most common ‘good’ answer for most of my professional life has been ‘participatory leadership’.

“Democratic or participative leadership refers to a decision-making style that encourages input from subordinates, but the ultimate decision-making power lies with the leader. The leader has a responsibility to explain the decisions to the subordinates and resolve any objections as a group.” https://www.cleverism.com/participative-leadership-guide/

However, after I had worked for a while as a vice president for Student Affairs, my answer changed to distributed leadership. (“Rather than focus on characteristics of the individual leader or features of the situation, distributed leadership foregrounds how actors engage in tasks that are “stretched” or distributed across the organization.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributed_leadership) It didn’t take very long for me to understand that a healthy, high-functioning division needed effective leadership throughout the organization.

I have believed for a long time that one of the most important elements of leadership is a willingness to take responsibility – responsibility for the success of the organization and for the health and well-being of the people around you.. That responsibility manifests itself as an ability to see what needs to be done and a consequent willingness to do it. It is that sense of responsibility that allows distributed leadership to work and it is that sense of responsibility, and distributed leadership, that has been, and still is, on full display in Houston and surrounding areas over recent days.

The Washington Post  posted a wonderful article on Sept. 2nd* that illustrates both of these ideas. Titled “Texans’ do-it-ourselves rescue effort defines Hurricane Harvey”, the article highlights the use of technology in allowing people who were willing to take on responsibility to be effective and the power of distributed leadership to manage large-scale challenges. Yes, there were systems in place. Yes, our government agencies are essential. And at the scale of this disaster, they weren’t enough by themselves.

There are stories beyond count, but I’ll choose one from the Post article – the story of Keri Henry. Henry saw people posting on Facebook asking for help and instead of feeling helpless because she couldn’t actually rescue them herself, she took on the responsibility of finding them help. She found a way to connect the need with people who could help. Eventually she was working to coordinate the work of 39 teams of 3-4 boats each!

In other circumstances, the reaction of the official leaders, the mayor, the police chief, FEMA, the list goes on, might have said it wasn’t safe to wade in and they would have been right. They might have said, ‘we need to keep track of everyone’ though that’s rarely possible in an emergency and it certainly wasn’t possible in such a widespread disaster. But the combination of useful technology and extreme need meant the official leaders had to let go of control. They had to let other people lead as they could. And they did.

“After the storm blew into Houston, a remarkable network of boat owners with smartphones, worried neighbors with laptops and digital wizards with mapping software popped up to summon and support an army of Good Samaritans who motored, rowed and waded into dangerous waters to save family, friends and total strangers.” *

It wasn’t perfect, of course. It wouldn’t have been perfect if it had all been led out of one central command center.  But it worked. What was most amazing to me is how well it did work. People assessed what needed to be done, understood what they were capable of doing (a critical component especially in this situation) and found a way to do it. That’s leadership. That’s distributed leadership.

*Link to article is on Bits & Pieces page

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