Cold, Hard Leadership

Photo by Amir Esrafili on

I was scheduled to teach my undergraduate leadership class at Trinity University the evening of September 12, 2001. I didn’t know whether or not students still needed to talk about what had happened the previous day, but I started the class as I usually did asking them about the leadership or lack thereof they had observed since the last class. We had a robust conversation about everything from the timeliness of the campus decision to cancel classes to actions on the national stage. It turned out to be just what many of them needed. In fact, I was surprised at how few students had talked about 9/11 in their other classes that day and how appreciative they were about the discussion. Using the lens of leadership to analyze what they had seen or experienced created the opportunity for students to engage at different levels.

I share this story because I find that analyzing leaders’ responses to multiple situations is both an effective pedagogical tool as well as a way to start a conversation on a variety of topics. Last week I jotted down some of the leadership lessons from last week in Texas.

Lesson 1.  Share the hard times. Don’t leave in the middle of a crisis even if there’s nothing you can do immediately. People need to see you, to know that you are aware of the difficulties they are experiencing, and, to know you are ready to step in when it’s appropriate.

Corollary: Don’t get in the way of people who do have work to do. Sometimes you need to let others do the immediate work, but don’t think there are no tasks for you. There are. See Lesson 2.

Lesson 2.  Communicate. Over and over, through all methods. If you know the bad weather is coming, help people prepare. If everyone was caught by surprise, make sure people know how to find help. (Kudos to Hays County and the City of San Marcos for text messages with links, recorded phone messages and a Community Services resource page that was updated regularly and was a good source of information.)

Lesson 3.  Help people. Don’t simply point the finger, point people toward resources and ways to get help. Worry about responsibility and accountability after people are out of harm’s way. (The harm could be psychological as well as physical.)

Lesson 4.  Organize resources. Resource management is one of the most important tasks for leadership at any level. This doesn’t go away in a crisis. It becomes more acute and more challenging. Exercise whatever influence and power you have to pull together the resources needed to support both people in need and people doing the work to meet those needs.

Corollary:  Don’t discount your networks and the power you can bring to a situation because you don’t have a title or this isn’t your area of expertise. What may be the most help is using your networks to find people with necessary expertise and resources.

Lesson 5.  Listen. Whether it’s a town hall, all staff meeting, or a one-to-one conversation listen to what people are telling you. They have information you need to help with the problem.

Corollary: Choose the venue/style carefully. If you are trying to solve individual complaints or problems, one on one conversations are worth the time as you try to make decisions about unique situations. A large meeting may be more efficient at sharing information, but rarely is the most effective at solving a wide range of problems. Be clear about what you are trying to do and what people need from you.

Lesson 6.  Leadership matters. Once again we see the results of leadership over the long term and the short term. If you have a leadership title, you have a responsibility to engage in leadership. If you don’t have a title but do have a way to help, step into that leadership role no matter your title or the lines on the organizational chart.

I’m sure, like the students in my class nearly twenty years ago, you have additional thoughts and ideas about examples from the past week – whether or not you were dealing with a ‘significant weather event.’ I know many of you were engaged in leadership this past week. I’d love to hear about the lessons you’ve learned.

Take care,


Leave a Comment