I watched Spike Lee’s HBO documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts again for about the nine hundredth time. The stories are powerfully haunting and heartbreaking still. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the enormous cost and curse of poor leadership. The lessons about democracy in failure, race, class, the power of the media, and the limitations of local, county, state and federal governments are all captured by the unblinking lens of the filmmaker’s camera.
Sometimes it seems as though bad news, gets overrun by terrible news, only to be trampled by horrific news. According to the Pew Center for the People and the Press on an average day 81% of Americans access news. We see news everywhere. And news itself is a big business. CNN, the all-news-all-the-time network has an annual compound growth rate of about 20% and profits of almost $400 million a year. The constant demand to keep eyeballs glued to televisions, newsprint and increasingly the Internet is an important driver of ad revenues and media profits. The predictable result is a veritable flood of stories–the good, bad and ugly flow rapidly and repeatedly to hold our attention. And some stories–important, life changing stories get lost in the ever changing currents of the news stream.
When it comes to stories left behind, the destruction of New Orleans as a result of Hurrican Katrina tops the list for me. Why? Well largely it’s because the destruction of New Orleans represents such extraordinary tragedy and human failure on so many different levels—individual, institutional and governmental. And partly because New Orleans offers cautionary lessons to not-for-profit organizations and their leaders from the likes of the Red Cross. New Orleans stands as a testament to the power of hope and faith. The renewal of city neighborhoods offers vital lessons about the importance of fresh, innovative approaches to leadership in the face of major disaster and its aftermath.
So what are the big lessons learned? If you were teaching future leaders, what wisdom or insight would you offer? What would you tell them? What can we take away from this extraordinary disaster and what can we as leaders offer in reflection in its place now some three years later? What do you think we’ve learned? We know we can do better. The question that haunts me still is how much?
When it comes to damning weak leadership, this pretty much sums it up. Most of us prefer a decisive leader who brings the benefit of experience, reflection, analysis, and judgment to those difficult organization moments. The leader who prefers to inflict the latest management fad on their organization or seems more comfortable with following the direction of the wind-sock in place of decisive action or thoughtful judgment do more damage to the psyche and morale of staff and managers than they ever seem to understand.
The core skills of compassion, vision and deliberateness demanded of leaders have not really changed all that much, although the focus, nature and complexity of leadership itself has undergone dramatic evolution and has sharply steepened the learning curve. If there’s a secret to success for leaders, it is in reminding ourselves to forever keep our focus outward—on members, vendors and customers, on the new ideas in the marketplace and on the ways in which disparate events, technologies and activities will change the future. It’s not about how you might use Twitter or Facebook or Linked In, it’s about how your members will use it now and in the future. As a leader, it can never be about us. It’s always and forever about those we serve.
If you only find time to read one business article this month, you may want to make it Scott Cook’s piece in the Harvard Business Review (October 2008) The Contribution Revolution – Letting Volunteers Build Your Business. Cook, a co-founder of Intuit has done a solid job of outlining the whys and the ways to build a user contribution system which will play a part in the growth and value of businesses ultimately benefiting customers and shareholders alike. They are what you and I call volunteers. As Cook points out there are a surprising number of business models that rely almost entirely on user contributions to add value to the product—think E-Bay or Facebook for starters. Essentially, E-Bay opened a store on the Internet that relied on its customers to fill the shelves and create an inventory. Wikipedia blew up the 200 plus year old model of encyclopedias by creating a volunteer led expedition into knowledge capture and the thing that makes Facebook most valuable–the profiles of its users are all created by volunteer labor.
Cook ponders a number of other user contribution systems at work today and offers a range of constructive ideas about how companies can more effectively engage users in enhancing the value of their products and services. The article reminds us about the importance of creating truly meaningful user contribution experiences and leveraging those contributions. Small victories matter and while organizational resistance is to be expected there’s value in ramping up to embed the process organization wide. In an era when many not-for-profits struggle with volunteer engagement Cook reminds us of the high value propositions user contribution systems make to organizations. For association professionals, this article is a fresh reminder of the importance and high value potential of volunteers. It’s also a solid source of fresh ideas for renewing your association’s engagement toolkit yet again.