The volunteer coordinator then asked the crew, “Do any of you have trade skills?” There was a long pause while everyone stayed quiet with their hands by their sides. After about a minute my friend raised her hand and said, “We do.” I felt my throat constrict as I looked at her in pain.
Often we doubt our own power, or we assume someone else could do the job better, or we imagine our role doesn’t really matter that much and most insidious we think THEY 1 are taking care of it!
I was in the midst of all this misguided thinking three weeks ago when I went to Vermont to help out with disaster relief efforts after Tropical Storm Irene brought great flooding that washed away roads and houses, turned many small towns into islands only reachable by helicopter, and turned thousands of peoples lives upside down for many, many months to come.
My friend and I headed up to Vermont with a car full of shovels and donuts and made our way to a small town that had posted a need for volunteers. When we arrived we were put into a crew of about ten people and told we were being sent to help folks muck out their cellars and gut their houses in a neighboring town that was far behind in their relief efforts.
I do not have trade skills. Have I hammered a nail and worked on farm crews? Yes. But I would never, ever characterize this as having trade skills in a million years.
The coordinator then went on to say, “Great, so you have worked on construction sites?” To which my friend answered, “Yup, we have.” At this point I began to object, but she stared me down and used all her non-verbal cues to shut me up (she may have kicked me).
It turns out my friend is a born leader. She was able in that moment to see that what was really needed was a few people with organizing skills who were comfortable leading a group of people to safely and effectively accomplish a task. She knew we had these skills in spades.
In this ballsy, brilliant moment she taught me, or at least reminded me of everything that it takes to be a leader.
- Leaders are not born (except my above mentioned friend), they are empowered. And they are not just empowered by an outer source of authority, but equally from an inner source of authority. If she hadn’t recognized the need for leadership and claimed her authority, the volunteer coordinator wouldn’t have empowered her to lead.
- Do not look at barriers. Only focus on resources. I was so hung up on my idea of myself as someone who is bad with a hammer and clumsy with a saw I couldn’t see the vast reservoir of resources I had to offer. I’ve spent my life leading large groups of people to achieve complex projects with a sense of community and accomplishment and joy; of course I could lead a crew to clean up a flooded muddy basement, or clean up debris, or gut the inside of a house.
- Everyone is a leader. From that moment forward I not only looked for what resources I could offer to the situation, but I also immediately looked to everyone else as resources as well. I realized that everyone I would encounter that day, just by virtue of showing up to help, was claiming their role as leader, and it was my role to show them that, just as my friend had shown me.
Dust and mud and debris were everywhere.
The town we went to was a town I’d driven through many times, and the street we worked on was the worst hit in the town. One house had been swept right down river leaving only a roof behind, other houses had been lifted off their foundation, and almost all the rest of the houses had been terribly flooded.
Although I’d spent six days glued to youtube videos of flooding and looking at endless pictures of destruction none of it prepared me for the reality not only of the devastation, but the human stories I would hear and see and experience for myself as I began helping with clean-up.
I was discovering new capacity for how much heartache, love and inspiration I could pack into one single day.
A local farmer, Geo, who was overseeing all the crews on the street met us as we piled out of our cars. He had not lost his own house, but he had lost his entire years crop to the flooding and his fields had been left covered in inches of silt and debris. Since there was nothing to be done immediately to restore his fields and clean up his crops and so he hadn’t lost a minute in helping his neighbors save their houses. He’d been going non-stop for over six days by the time we met him on River Street.
After giving us the briefest, most heartfelt pep talk I’ve ever heard, letting us know how we would see residents transform from complete discouragement and grief to hope and warmth as we demolished their houses, he quickly put the crews to work. Within the hour we had mostly cleaned up one woman’s basement and some of the crew were heading over to another house.
Geo was moving up and down the street giving instructions and the more he saw my friend and I running our crews the sweeter his smile became.
We could see weight discernibly lift off his shoulders. He hadn’t taken a break in six days, his own farm was in ruins, he’d saved at least ten houses from being lost to water and mold, and he desperately needed to stop and rest. As he saw my friend and I gracefully claim our roles as leaders he realized his own exhaustion.
We were only going to stay one day but by the end of the day we agreed to stay another to finish the work in the houses we were in and to oversee the crews and coordinate the volunteers for the whole street so our now dear friend and exhausted farmer could stop.
He met us the next morning on the street to officially hand over responsibility. His eyes were filled with tears and tiredness as he hugged us and thanked us and told us we were saving his life and other exclamations that weren’t really true in the big picture, but were profoundly sincere in the moment.
By afternoon volunteer crews had made substantial progress on the whole street, and by progress I mean amazing leaders had taken the responsibility to do things like hand five gallon buckets full of mud up through a hole in a basement for hours and hours on end as part of a large bucket brigade lined up through the basement and up through to behind the house.
Anyone who came to me that morning and showed the slightest sense of initiative I immediately put in charge of something. One woman came to me and asked,
“Would it be okay if I went and got a belt for Fred (the elderly man whose house we were working in who’d lost everything and then the day before his belt had broken)?”
I answered, “Not only is it okay, but you certainly don’t have to ask my permission, and when you get back from getting him a belt I am going to put you in charge of the whole street.”
She smiled and agreed. We were both claiming our authority and leading from within.
She didn’t know she could lead until that moment when she already was.
Empathetic and concerned as I was heading into Vermont to help, I can’t begin to say how much I didn’t know what was awaiting me. We all see pictures and footage of natural disaster so regularly on the news and although it may momentarily make our hearts ache it is an altogether different—more full and hopeful and devastating and dynamic experience—to be part of it yourself either as your house slips down the river or you arrive to help clean up the debris and listen to everyone’s stories.
It quickly becomes clear that one of the greatest needs on the ground is simply for people to listen to each other’s stories, to witness our shared lives unraveling and weaving together in new unimaginable ways.
Vermont still needs leaders! Go to: www.vtresponse.com.
Many Vermont Farmers like our friend Geo were hit hard by the storm. Vermont is a largely agricultural state and farmer’s are not only providing food to their communities and beyond, they are stewarding the land, and maintaining the beauty that attracts visitors and brings in tourist dollars each year. Our world needs small farms and Vermont needs to remain a leader in local agriculture. To offer your financial assistance to recovery efforts please consider making a donation to the Farmer Emergency Fund.
To find out more about how Vermont is recovering from Tropical Storm Irene go to www.vpr.net.
- Someday I’ll write a long rant about THEM and about how THEY don’t actually exist, and in fact the very idea of the all powerful, all knowing THEM is the cause of much confusion and lack of leadership in our world. ↩