Leadership Lessons from the Boulder Flood

September 21, 2013 -- Sal Silvester

rescue picture - leadershipThe "100-year flood" hammered Boulder, Colorado. Between September 10th and September 15th, 17+ inches of rain poured down, including over 9 inches on September 12th alone. The torrent overwhelmed the steep terrain of the foothills and flat-landers to the east. Rivers overflowed, homes slid off their foundations, roads were destroyed, and six people lost their lives. The Obama administration declared a major disaster in the State of Colorado and ordered federal aid to assist the local recovery efforts.  

In the middle of the crisis and in the days that followed, I witnessed some of the most amazing and endearing human behavior one could experience in a lifetime. Take, for example...

  • The firefighter who lost his home yet continued to work on rescue operations saying, "This is what I was meant to be doing."
  • The mountain rescue volunteer whose apartment AND rental home flooded yet spent over 4 days from dawn to dusk out on missions. 
  • Friends helping friends remove drywall and carpeting that drowned in flooded basements. 
  • The bucket brigade by my 13-year old nephew and his Mom at 2:00am to keep water out of their basement while Dad was out of the country on business. 
  • The timely emails and phone calls from loved ones to see if everyone was OK. 
  • The national guard soldiers who transported rescuers into areas that only their 5-ton trucks could penetrate. 
  • The active duty Army pilots and crew chiefs, on break from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, who happily airlifted rescue teams into postage-stamp-sized landing zones in the mountains.  

The list goes on and the stories get more heroic. But here's what makes me wonder. In times like these, why do people shine beyond all reasonable expectations, and what leadership lessons can be learned? Here are a few that standout to me. 

Purpose - People rise to unbelievable levels of magnificence when they find meaning in what they do. They drop everything and look beyond their own egos and agendas when they follow a calling that is purposeful and fulfilling. Leaders who connect a meaningful vision to what team members do on a daily basis create environments where people want to ...

make a contribution. People naturally want to contribute. It is part of our human nature. But sometimes the politics of the workplace get in the way. Leaders can inspire a sense of contribution by involving team members not because they want their buy-in, but because they actually want to hear what people have to say. When people truly feel like their contributions matter they go above and beyond and....

the sum becomes greater than the parts. The combined strengths of multiple people, perspectives, and differences make an impact that no individual person, department, or agency can do on their own. 

As Boulder begins its long road to recovery, I have faith that the community will persevere. After all, the people here are focused on a higher purpose, are contributing in a way that makes a difference, and, as a result, their sum is greater than their parts.

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