Leadership in action, what does it look like to you; according to Northouse (2016), leadership is described as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal ” (p. 6). However, the manor in which leadership is executed varies and the numerous styles of leadership along with traits and characteristics, both good and bad, are addressed throughout thousands of articles, books, and journals. Understandingly, there is a lot to grasp and research, however sometimes it is good to take a break from examining the definitions, theories and descriptions of leadership within text and simply observe those principles in action. Many of us can think of a time when we observed both good and bad leadership. Applying the lens of leadership as defined to those moments we observed, we can gauge the effectiveness of those leaders, and perhaps take away examples of invaluable wisdom.
Recently, I was privileged to observe leadership in its truest form, exercised in the midst of chaos. Less than two weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf of Texas. The response from federal, state, and local communities was inspiring to say the least. As a member of the United States Coast Guard, I witnessed the results of true leadership in action, both from the command centers where planning sessions for response efforts were held, to on-scene where those plans were executed. Every person involved took part in leadership, there were leaders and there were followers and both were needed equally to get the job done. What amazed me however, was the way in which the leader and follower roles developed. As mentioned in Northouse (2016), there are six bases of power; referent power, expert power, legitimate power, reward power, coercive power, and information power. As the results of Hurricane Harvey unfolded upon the cities along the Gulf Coast, those bases of power played out in an ever-changing sea of harmony. Two specific moments that caught my attention most, both involved a changing of roles of leadership power, where in one circumstance the follower became the leader and in another, the leader the follower.
The initial predictions of Hurricane Harvey were underestimated. Previous storms that fell apart before they were able to make landfall, set the minds of federal, state, and local personnel at ease. Although warnings of potential flooding were issued, nobody could have predicted the impact Hurricane Harvey would soon have. Once the storm hit, it was evident the situation had become serious. Within hours streets began to flood, levees and bayous next and before anyone could do anything, the entire city of Houston was under water with neighboring cities to soon follow after. The need for action was paramount. Entire families were clinging onto their rooftops crying out in desperation for rescue and sadly, many drowned. The time for leadership was never greater. All responding personnel were expected to answer the call. Many responders never even trained let alone prepared for an event like this, were now leading teams into the unknown to help their fellow Americans. Citizens stepped up and formed rescue parties, driving boats through the streets picking up as many as they could to take them to safety.
With the magnitude of the situation, by default followers were becoming leaders. Within our own organization, we had several established teams, which consisted of leaders and followers. However, with the great need for help, many additional reserve members were called in to assist, along with outside resources. Soon those established followers were expected to become leaders. What was so amazing was the transformation of many followers into leaders. Revisiting the six bases of power, three truly were exemplified; expert power, legitimate power, and information power quickly birthed from the necessity of the situation. People who were deemed as being experts in rescue methods due to their previously established qualifications were placed in roles of leadership through expert power. People who held positions of rank were directed to lead teams, assumed positions of legitimate power. Other people joined the response that held information regarding various potential areas of concern or asset availability that became leaders through information power. Both position power and personal power were being demonstrated throughout the response efforts (Northouse, 2016).
As to be expected the tempo of everyone involved was extremely high. Adrenaline was flowing and a sense of urgency to help permeated the air. There was no stopping for rest; there were lives at stake and a mission to save those lives, well underway. However, after several days responders began to feel the impact of pushing limits. People were tired. Many responder’s themselves had homes destroyed by the floods. Food was limited and rest even more so. The results began to show. It was at this moment when I observed a junior member pull a senior member aside and tell him “stop, leave the area and go get some rest so that you can return ready to get back into the fight”. I had just witnessed how leadership could be not only from the top down but also from the bottom up. As a result, the senior member agreed and returned two days later.
When the senior leader returned, during the morning briefing, he mentioned the situation to the group. He stated that just because someone is in a position of leadership does not mean that they cannot benefit from leadership themselves. He explained how he had pushed himself too far and was beginning to make mistakes, however a junior member made the right move and called him on it. He reinforced that we all need to look out for each other and was grateful that the junior member had stepped up and said something. This scenario demonstrated servant leadership from the bottom-up. The junior member exercised the healing characteristic of servant leadership. As stated by Northouse (2016), “servant leaders care about the personal well-being of their followers. They support followers by helping them overcome personal problems” (p.228). Although roles were previously established, the junior member exercised servant leadership. This concept of leading from the bottom-up has been gaining attention for some time, McCrimmon (as cited in Wong, & Davy, 2007) referred to leadership in the future as “not tied to official positions or roles; rather, it is an informal act, which can be performed by all employees. Thus, every worker can show leadership” (p. 10). Certainly in reference to the situation between the junior and senior member, this style of leadership, where traditional roles were broken, proved not only successful but necessary.
Following the response efforts to the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, a multitude of examples were observed of truly great leadership. People stepped up into roles of leadership simply because there was a need. Not everyone was told to do what they did, rather there was a sense of calling, a moral compass that led everyday followers into roles of leadership in the face of disaster. Demonstrating roles of power, some transforming from followers to leaders and others from leaders to followers. The actions of many produced true leadership as groups of people came together to accomplish a common goal, to save one’s fellow neighbor. Although numerous people hold positions of leadership each day, it is when leadership is birthed from crises that we see true leadership exemplified.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Wong, P. T. P., & Davey, D. (2007). Best Practices in Servant Leadership. Servant Leadership Research Roundtable, Virginia Beach, VA. Retrieved from https://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/sl_proceedings/2007/wong-davey.pdf