9 management lessons from 13th and Violet

by  Leigh Steere  |  Leadership Coaching

IMG_13th & Violet - smallOur family stayed dry during the recent Boulder flood. But some of our friends fought a losing battle with the water. Flooded basements, flooded cars, rivers running through homes, and washed out roads transformed our calm, laid back town into a frenzied disaster zone. Even those of us without property damage found it hard to concentrate on “regular life.”

Emergency officials asked everyone to stay home. They wanted to keep the roads clear for first responders and inspectors. Crews examined bridges and streets to identify unsafe routes, marking road closures with orange barrels and National Guard troops.

I followed orders. For two days. But I’m not good at sitting around and waiting if someone needs help. And I think many employees are like that, too.

Frustrated by the wait, an all-volunteer group quickly sprung up to identify and respond to flood needs: BoulderFloodRelief.org. I don’t think they waited for permission from anyone to set up shop. I think they just acted. They created a straightforward way for flood victims to request assistance. Volunteers can call a number for an assignment, a place to help out.

A family friend phoned Boulder Flood Relief and received instructions to report to 13th and Violet for a water diversion project. My kids and I went along, armed with shovels and not sure what to expect. Quite unexpectedly, I walked away with some important business insights.

The landscape at 13th and Violet was alarming. A large expanse of water, the size of a football field, and two to twelve inches deep, was flowing directly into a group of homes. This was Tuesday, six days after the worst of the storm had passed. I realize there were worse problems elsewhere in Boulder County, and that emergency officials had to prioritize their resources, but for the people in this neighborhood, this problem was desperate.

In the storm, a small, meandering creek had become a raging giant, jumped its banks, and created a new, unwanted path into a neighborhood. Our assignment? To divert this water away from the houses.

Lessons for business:

  1. If a goal is crystal clear, available employees can help, even outside their areas of expertise. When we first arrived at 13th and Violet, there were no water experts. People just jumped in and started building berms. No one was giving orders. None were needed, because the goal was measurable. You could see whether your efforts were doing the job or not. You could see where water was leaking through and where it was successfully diverted.
  2. Leadership can (and sometimes should) shift mid-project. The original project lead at 13th and Violet said, “I’m just a homeowner trying to get this water away from the houses. Here’s what we’re working on.” An hour later, National Guardsmen arrived, and one of them was a water expert. He did not criticize the work done so far. Instead he stepped alongside the volunteers and demonstrated a next step in the project.
  3. True leadership does not bark. The National Guardsmen did not order the laypeople to step aside. Instead, they joined the volunteers and worked fluidly alongside. They led by example and encouragement. We watched what the uniformed men were doing and followed suit.
  4. Even the most unlikely helper can make a difference. Don’t count anyone out. Every individual can think through, “What can I personally do to work toward this goal?” A seven-year-old can hold open a burlap bag while an adult shovels sand into it. Both jobs are important, and the National Guardsmen made a point of praising the bag holders, not just the heavy lifters.
  5. A good manager sets the goal, not the how. In some spots, people were diverting water with sandbags. In other places, they were using broken doors and rocks.
  6. Effective leaders flex with changing resources and conditions. We quickly ran out of burlap sacks for making sandbags, well before the job was complete. Rather than stop work and wait for more to arrive, we asked, “How else can we get this job done? What flood debris could be used to accomplish the same end?”
  7. If something isn’t working the way you planned, modify on the fly. We had successfully built a berm to redirect the water. But it was clear that the force of the water against the berm might cause it to break. A National Guardsman looked upstream and chose another place to divert water to take some pressure off the berm. It wasn’t in the original plan, but it made sense to add—and it got the job done more thoroughly.
  8. Employees who are not involved in a mission-critical activity need the latitude to help elsewhere without waiting for orders. Senior executives face a tough task of prioritizing goals and allocating limited resources. In the Boulder flood, getting food and water to stranded people, and evacuating them, needed to be the top focus initially. But there were other grave needs. If someone is available, let them tackle those needs.
  9. Every organization can benefit from having its own internal version of BoulderFloodRelief.org. Do you have a clearinghouse where folks can report a business need? And any employee with a bit of spare time can volunteer to help? All you really need is a Google Drive spreadsheet and a triage person to match resources with the most pressing needs.
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About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit http://www.managingpeoplebetter.com/mpb/index.html for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mary C Schaefer  |  03 Oct 2013  |  Reply

Leigh, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. These are terrific insights and applicable to so many areas of our lives. I find myself wanting to say, “Thank you for thinking this through for us and articulating these learnings so clearly.”

Leigh Steere  |  03 Oct 2013  |  Reply

Thanks, Mary. On that day, I found myself thinking about old-fashioned barn raising events. I believe Corporate America shortchanges itself when it crafts rigid job descriptions and organizational processes that interfere with getting work done fluidly. I found myself wishing we could recreate the 13th and Violet dynamic inside companies.

Mary C Schaefer  |  03 Oct 2013  | 

I understand, Leigh. I can see why you would long for the barn-raising experience in corporate america (I keep it lower-case to be subversive ;)

There’s an incredible story about what it took to get all of the planes out of the sky on 9/11, after the attacks. There was no procedure for that. It took everyone, everywhere in North America, coming together to do what they knew needed to be done. People made it happen in just a few hours. Truly a feat. I think it is in a Malcolm Gladwell book. I’m sorry I can’t remember which one. Just thinking of the story gives me chills.

Yes, companies could learn from all of this. It also occurs to me one thing that is required is a collapse of egos.

Leigh Steere  |  03 Oct 2013  | 

Did you hear about Gander, Newfoundland’s role in 9/11? Inspiring story. Here’s a video documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXbxoy4Mges

Mary C Schaefer  |  04 Oct 2013  | 

I remember their involvement, Leigh. Thanks for the link!

Jonena Relth  |  03 Oct 2013  | 

What a wonderful example of ingenuity. When we allow people to get involved and solve problems, they show us again and again what awesome people live in America! Leadership should be about leading, not managing and the recent flooding in CO gave people the opportunity to show us exactly how smart and creative they can be. While the destruction caused by the flooding is very sad, it’s nice to have real life examples of Americans at their best. Now we just need to put what we’ve learned from this into action in our companies.

Leigh Steere  |  03 Oct 2013  | 


Thanks for your comment. I’d welcome hearing more about your views on the leadership/management distinction.

Our firm has been studying people-management behaviors – specifically “Relating” (which encompasses asking, listening, including, coaching, and encouraging) and “Requiring” (which includes setting expectations, focusing on goals, insisting on excellence, establishing appropriate controls, and confronting performance issues). Our research shows that great managers are comfortable using both skill sets and intuitively know which skills to apply in the moment.

At 13th and Violet, I witnessed better goal focus, including, and encouraging than I typically see in a corporate environment.

I’m curious to learn your perspective on what keeps companies from involving employees more meaningfully in problem solving.

Jonena Relth  |  04 Oct 2013  |  Reply

Leah, I think we have a country full of leaders who were not groomed for leadership. They were taught how to manage and with an iron fist, at that. Too many companies are still attached to the “Don’t buck the system” or think outside the box ‘cuz the boss won’t like it!” We don’t have enough companies whose cultures openly allow for mistakes – – in fact embrace them because it is when we make mistakes that we know we’ve moving beyond the status quo. Without allowing for mistakes, we have no problem solving going on.

Having come up from the ranks with “good ‘ol boys” at the helm, many of our leaders and thus our managers question their every decision as though it will be their last, if things don’t go 100% right. No wonder so many of our employees are fearful of trying to solve problems on their own even if they think they have a darn good idea that will help improve moral, customer service, the bottom line, whatever.

Mature (good) leaders know that their job is to guide their companies by learning all they can about what is happening out there, understanding what their competition is doing and strategizing where and how to guide their companies into the future. Leaders shouldn’t be in the weeds directing company employees how to do their daily tasks. Our managers should be coaching, mentoring and teaching our employees how to improve their performance and helping them grow professionally. And with all coaching and mentoring, good managers know when to step back and watch as their protégés find new and better ways to do their jobs.

Leigh Steere  |  07 Oct 2013  |  Reply

Jonena, thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts. Companies need to allow latitude to make mistakes. Without that permission, employees are less willing to take risks and try new things. Organizations can end up with a staff of order-takers instead of initiators.

Mike Henry  |  05 Oct 2013  |  Reply

Leigh, as always, an excellent post. We don’t need permission. People are great. When needs arise, people arise too. Your post contains several great lessons, but for me the best one is how crystal clear, shared purpose brings focus and direction. People want to be a part of the solution to the most important issues, even if it means holding the bags. We all want to be part of something important. Leaders and organizations who can allow their people to pitch-in will have happy, engaged people who are energized to be part of the solution. Left to ourselves, with out that crystal clear goal, and we all become part of the problem.

Thanks again for a wonderful post! Mike…

Leigh Steere  |  07 Oct 2013  |  Reply

Thank you, Mike.

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