What Disasters Can Teach Us About Leadership and Team Work

My small corner of the world encountered catastrophe last week. An EF3 tornado cut a swath of devastation 83 miles long through our county and across neighboring counties, leaving one dead and dozens homeless, with months of cleanup and rebuilding ahead. Our neighbor’s farm was affected, and I spent a few days helping them try to return to normal after their world turned upside down. While the process provided many lessons, the ones about leadership and teamwork were the most striking.


Leadership isn’t doing everything – it’s doing the right thing.

When a storm of that magnitude plays fruit basket upset with your life, it’s difficult to process. Things are everywhere: glass, metal, trash, branches, insulation, broken pieces of buildings, salvageable items, etc., not to mention the mud and water every tornado leaves in its wake. It’s easy to get overwhelmed – you’d like to help, but there’s just.so.much.to.do! This is where doing a little functional triage and knowing your own strengths can be really helpful.

Before you can lead others, you need to first understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and then compare them to the skill sets of the people surrounding you. Then assign some priority. If there are things other people can handle and things that don’t need immediate attention, LET OTHER PEOPLE DO THEM, or do them later. Focus on the things that are immediate and require your talents. The evening of the tornado, I found myself hauling, moving, and tying cattle. Because my neighbors lost their barn in the evening, just before milking was set to begin, the cattle needed to be re-homed and milked as quickly as possible to avoid stress and illness. I’m around cattle frequently and am comfortable moving them, so that’s where I focused my assistance. Others didn’t have that skill and were better suited for jobs that didn’t involve 2000 lb bovines in post-catastrophic shock.

Focus plus determination equal results.

As I mentioned above, the aftermath of a tornado is overwhelming. With so many needs, it can be tempting to try to do everything all at once. But leadership is also about discipline. Turning your focus to one thing – for instance, clearing the fence rows of downed trees, gathering salvageable items, or concentrating on picking up and sorting only metal debris – can yield faster, more recognizable results. This is goes hand-in-hand with the self knowledge I already mentioned – if you can’t control yourself and focus, how are you going to be able to direct others?

Remember the human reasons behind your work.

It’s really easy after a tornado to see everything as trash – things are strewn about, looking wet and bedraggled. But all those pieces are trash are broken pieces of someone’s life, and they might hold a value you’ll never understand. When working to clean up after the tornado, I frequently found myself holding odd pieces of garden decor or assorted shop tools up for my neighbors and asking, “Should I keep this?” or “What would you like done with this?” The work mattered, but their feelings/needs/emotions drove it.

The same is true in work situations. Work is work. But what are the human reasons you do what you do? Is it to improve the customer/user experience? Is it to provide value to shareholders? Is it to solve a problem or fill a need? Concentrate on the human catalysts behind your work and you’ll find yourself more motivated and successful with every project.

Leaders communicate…always. 

Because my life centers on communication, I tend to do it frequently across multiple channels and for a variety of audiences. In the tornado’s aftermath, I took to social media – not because I was interested in showing pictures of the storm’s wreckage, but because I wanted to give messages of care, support, and solidarity to my neighbors. The post I put out was shared over 50 times and seen by almost 25,000 people.

This social sharing ended up having a really positive secondary effect, though. Because of the post, suddenly other neighbors and even people who lived several hours away were calling/texting/messaging about ways they could get involved, help out, or donate. By putting information out on my social media (communicating out), I was opening up the opportunity for others to contact me (communicating in) for additional information. It works the same way in business – if you want employees, customers, or clients to come to you for information, you need to “go first” by opening the channel and telling them what’s going on.


Similar to the ideas of triage and self-knowledge I already discussed, the ability to designate work within teams is key to effective leadership. In a tornado zone or other emergency situation, you don’t have the luxury of doing a skills assessment of everyone who shows up to help. Responses have to be more rapid-fire than that – this guy showed up with a chainsaw, so let’s assume he knows how to run it and get him clearing fence rows. Another girl shows up with a cattle trailer – I think she’ll be capable of moving cows and backing trailers into cattle lanes.

However you make the determination, the key is to designate responsibilities to others with the talent to accomplish them. Even if people harbor uncertainty or self-doubt, the best way to help them shine is to start by first believing in their abilities. They’ll surprise you by rising to the challenge.


Celebrate small accomplishments.

Since my neighbors lost their barn, a machine shed and a garage/shop building, there was mangled sheet metal spread over a large chunk of their property and adjoining land. A local waste removal company brought roll-off containers for the metal fragments, so picking up and separating metal was one of the first jobs for the volunteers. Some teams got ATVs and rode across the fields in search of metal bits. Others concentrated in specific areas – the pasture, the yard, the barnyard. By 24 hrs after the storm, the metal roll-offs had been filled a number of times, and the metal cleanup was complete (apart from those chunks unable to be reached due to flooding, height in the trees, or inaccessibility due to other debris like their fallen silos). There were still a million other things to do, but it was gratifying to cross ONE thing off the list, and several of us celebrated the mini metal milestone!

This is really important in work life, especially if you’re involved in large or slow-moving projects. Any PM worth their salt can whip up an MS Project timeline for your project flow – the important part is to realize that each segment on that chart shows a small step toward your goal. If you wait until the end to celebrate completion, you’re shortchanging your staff positive feedback about the progress that drove you to that point. Make every step something worth cheering for, and you’ll be surprised at what it does for morale. Which leads me to…

Capitalize on momentum.

During the metal cleanup, groups of volunteers concentrated on their unique areas. However, once an area was canvassed, volunteers quickly disbanded and scattered to other groups, lending additional manpower to complete the other areas more quickly. The fresh infusion of assistance, and knowing it came as a result of another portion of the project being completed, was helpful in maintaining motivation and creating and sustaining momentum.

When teams complete a task, celebrate, and then set them toward another task or goal, or even reassign them to another team that’s struggling, short-staffed, or in need of additional expertise. Pushing those feelings of goodwill and the empowering attitude of accomplishment into other areas of your business impacts the energy with which your team attacks remaining problems and future projects.

Recognize others’ unique gifts.

This goes hand in hand with my previous comments about knowing your own strengths and weaknesses.  There were a number of people who found they were unable to help with clean up. But regardless of whether they found the physical work of clean up to be beyond their capabilities, or if other commitments kept them from being there in person, they still found ways to contribute. Some brought food for the workers. Some planned future meals for the family. Some coordinated volunteers. Others lined up heavy equipment operators for larger cleanup tasks. Some reached out to community groups and schools to arrange additional help. Everyone was doing whatever they could to move my neighbors closer to normalcy.

The same concept applies with teams. Not everyone has the skills or abilities to do every job. But building strong teams starts with each team member recognizing and understanding the tasks/roles other members. When there’s good core understanding, then team members can riff creatively on the process, and provide complementary support to project tasks, moving everyone closer to the goal.

Teams are nothing without confidence.

There is nothing more disheartening than the wreckage of a tornado. Everything you own is in tatters, including things you have worked your whole life to build, and things that impact your very livelihood. But a common phrase from the tornado cleanup crew was “At least it’s not people – you have insurance to replace stuff.”

The idea of insurance is incredibly valuable. In business, there are a lot of failures. But by communicating to your team that failures aren’t forever, and obstacles are surmountable, you build confidence: confidence to try and fail, confidence to start over, confidence to explore new opportunities. It’s mental insurance for your team, and that gives them the courage to try mightily and rebuild if needed.

I don’t suggest looking for a natural disaster as a testing ground for your leadership or team building skills, but they have much to teach us about both. But I do encourage you to look around: there are opportunities to develop leadership skills and hone your team-building acumen in nearly every human interaction. Look, learn, do, and analyze, and you’ll find yourself stronger than when you started.