I'm spending this week with the leadership of the American Red Cross Disaster Services – in theory to help roll out an iterative approach to disaster management to 140 of their disaster relief operations directors.  In practice, we're all getting a master class in inspiring and enabling others.  We're learing about the power of a motivating shared purpose, the power of stories, and the power of a strong team.

Lesson 1 – The Power of a Motivating Shared Purpose

It doesn't get more clear than this.  These people have been called to help others.  They are all about providing relief to victims of disasters.

"Disaster relief is the heart of our mission" – Gail McGovern, CEO

"When people we've never met need help, the Red Cross is there…We are the best part of their worst day." – Charley Shimanski, SVP Disaster Services

"Called" is the right word.  I can't tell you how many people this week have told me about how they were watching the news about a disaster and said to themselves, "I need to help".  Time after time, different people related getting into their cars and driving to the Red Cross to ask what they could do.  One man did this five years ago and has come back every day since then.

Their mission is clear.  Helping others trumps everything else.  They are prepared to subordinate almost any petty concern in pursuit of their purpose.  And when it comes to providing relief to victims of disasters, almost everything else feels like a petty concern.  (Though, it would be nice if the hotel had hot water.)

The easiest way to imbue passion for purpose in your people is to have a purpose that inspires passion.

Lesson 2 – The Power of Stories

We did a session on "What Choices Direct Actions".  After laying out the framework, we had people work in small groups first to share their "whats", then stories of inspiring "actions", and finally, tough "choices" they'd made.  We then invited a couple of people to share the most inspiring stories they'd heard from others.  At least half the room was in tears.  We heard about:

  • The lady who got to Newark airport on 9/11 after carrying her late husband's remains back from France.  She'd been helped by the Red Cross there, but didn't know what she was going to do when she got home.  And then, struggling down the stairs with her young daughter and a large suitcase, she saw a Red Cross flag, got approached by two Red Cross volunteers, and knew things were going to be okay.
  • Charley Shimanski's story of the day that he spontaneously volunteered to help search for a teenager lost in a blizzard (who was found and safely rescued).  Coming down from the mountains he saw a Red Cross emergency response vehicle in the crowd of cars.  He turned to his companion and said "Seems like a disproportionate response for one lost teenager."  His companion replied "They're not here for him.  They're here for us."  Charley's convinced that the Red Cross isn't so much serving first responders cups of coffee as they are serving "cups of love".
  • Gail McGovern's story of going straight to an airplane after a few hours doling out chili from the back of a very hot emergency response vehicle.  Since she had not had time to shower or change, she was afraid people would be offended by the way she looked and smelled as she worked her way to the back of the airplane.  Instead, a number of people saw her dirty Red Cross t-shirt, reached out and touched her arm as she walked by, and said "Thank you for helping". 

Make sure you're living and telling stories that inspire.


Lesson 3 – The Power of a Strong Team

Pictured above are the disaster relief directors wandering around the Red Cross's Disaster Operations Center in Washington D.C.  Each of the headquarters group and activity leads had given the directors a 2 minute summary of what they do and important new news.  Then the directors were free to wander around and follow up with people in their work stations as they wanted.

The disaster operations directors know that working with their clients, partners, donors, workers, and the public requires close collaboration with the Red Cross's people working on Individual Client Services, Mass Care, Disaster Services Technology, External Relations, Information and Planning, Logistics, and Staff Services.

Make sure you're knitting together the various components of what you do to enable others.

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