March 25, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
News from post-earthquake, post-tsunami Japan has not been uplifting, but a recent story is a major exception. For students of leadership and organizations, it’s also a powerful illustration of the impact of leading from the foot of the table and of organizing and empowering others to take charge of their lives.
It’s well worth digging up the New York Times article for a full read. Here’s why.
When the tsunami hit, the tiny fishing village of Hadenya was cut off from the rest of the world: bridges, roads, phone lines, and cell phone services were gone. It was bitter cold. Homes, buildings, and vehicles had been destroyed. Food and fuel were thin. Those who ran to a hillside community center and escaped the crushing waves had no idea of the extent of the devastation – or whether others knew of their survival.
What did the stunned and frightened villagers do? They organized, and informal leadership created a communal spirit, division of labor, and focus on survival that enabled the isolated villagers to carry on unassisted for 12 days, to care for the young and weak, and to sustain hope and health.
With sophistication and a clear view of the amazing devastation, the group responded to the informal leadership of Osamu Abe, 43, who was known to others because of his job as head of a local nature center. Mr. Abe went into action. He mobilized school children to erect tents so residents could rest outside during the aftershocks. Groups were formed to gather water from the marshes and firewood from the debris to boil it. He asked a nurse to set up a makeshift clinic for those in need. Daily lists of tasks were formed, and jobs were assigned.
Some scavenged for food and found a truck washed up by the waves that contained edible products. Others drained gasoline from smashed cars or kerosene from destroyed fishing boats for cooking and heating fuel.
Some boiled water, cooked, cleaned, and created tidy order in the shared community center space. (The photo of stacked supplies in the gymnasium is the epitome of neatness.)
A surveillance party set off over the hill to alert the nearest and larger local town of the villagers’ survival.
There was much to be done, and everyone was needed. For the few who initially refused to participate, Mr. Abe offered them “positions of responsibility” which he was happy to report indeed motivated them.
The story of Hadenya was not an isolated incident. Japanese authorities note that the spontaneous self-organizing and informal leadership seen there characterized other small towns and shelters, and the relationships and structures formed will serve villagers well when relocated into new housing miles away.
So what do you take from the Hadenya story to inform your leadership? Your willingness to face seemingly insurmountable challenges? Your ability to rise to the unanticipated?
The moral of the story for me: never under-estimate the power of the human spirit, the ability of individuals to mobilize and channel it, and the capacity of groups with shared interest to make a difference.