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In times of crisis, natural leaders emerge from the grass roots

Sharon Akin, left, and Bea Hall are waging a letter-writing campaign for the owner of their housing complex  to adopt a snow-emergency plan that includes money for extra plowing  (J. BART RAYNIAK / The Spokesman-Review)
Sharon Akin, left, and Bea Hall are waging a letter-writing campaign for the owner of their housing complex to adopt a snow-emergency plan that includes money for extra plowing (J. BART RAYNIAK / The Spokesman-Review)

Sharon Akin lives in a housing complex for low-income seniors in Spokane Valley. During the recent three-week stretch of storms, snow piled up on the complex’s sidewalks, jammed the parking lot and encroached on mailboxes. The older residents couldn’t easily get out, nor could emergency vehicles easily get in.

Akin appreciated the complex’s hard-working maintenance men, who did their best to clear the snow, but they needed help. Extra snowplowing costs money. Akin, 72, is organizing a letter-writing campaign urging the Ohio-based company that owns the complex to adopt a snow-emergency plan that includes funds for extra plowing.

“There are people who say, ‘Somebody has to do something about this.’ The somebody is me,” Akin said.

Akin is a “common-law leader.” Such leaders don’t have titles, management responsibilities or lofty salaries. But during crises, their leadership skills emerge in neighborhoods, workplaces and communities.

“When people are in crisis, it’s a testing time. You see what they are made of,” said Linda Finney, executive director of Leadership Spokane.

Finney and other leadership experts say workplace managers – and leaders in organizations that rely on volunteers – should pay attention to those who emerged as common-law leaders during the winter storms. These folks possess talents that could help organizations survive a turbulent and downsized 2009.

“Nowadays, crises don’t pass; they merge into another crisis,” said Leonard Doohan, of Spokane, author of “Spiritual Leadership: The Quest for Integrity.” “The word ‘crisis’ is Greek and means judgment. Crisis is a time to make a new judgment about things.”

According to leadership experts, common-law leaders:

•Show up. Finney and her husband live in a rural area. They hired a man to snowplow their long driveway. The man, who also helped a municipality clean its roads, showed up to their home several times – once in the middle of the night.

“He was getting paid for it, but he went above and beyond what he had to do,” Finney said. “Our driveway is no picnic to plow. It would have been easy for him to say, ‘I can’t make it. I’ve been working all these hours.’ But he kept the commitment.”

Tom Tilford, director of the Hogan Entrepreneurial Leadership Program at Gonzaga University, felt in awe of GU custodians who worked finger-numbing hours to clear campus sidewalks and streets.

“Certain people understand that in spite of adversity, operations have to keep going,” Tilford said. “They appreciate how many people are dependent on what they do, whether it’s washing dishes or whether it’s the clerk who shows up at Rosauers so people can continue to eat.”

•Step out of their comfort zones. Employees and volunteers throughout the Inland Northwest took on new responsibilities during the storm. Spokane code enforcement employees, for instance, assisted garbage collectors.

Leanne Carney, coordinator of the Meals on Wheels program for Coeur d’Alene’s Lake City Senior Center, received calls from two men who had never volunteered for the organization before. “They had four-wheel drives,” she said. “They were awesome.” One of the men is now a regular volunteer.

In crises, common-law leaders take on new duties – without complaint. Finney said, “When there’s all this wild stuff going on, they say, ‘It’s all our job.’ ”

•Grow from the experience. Common-law leaders often use untapped creativity or under-utilized skills in a crisis. It’s rejuvenating. Doohan said that “each crisis is opportunity for life-producing change.”

Akin’s snowplowing crusade allowed her to resurrect skills she honed in 10 years as a call-center operator. Since she couldn’t leave her apartment, she hit the phones. She called her neighbors. She called the Fire Department and the state attorney general’s office to inquire about snow-removal laws. She called the Center for Justice in Spokane with questions about landlord-tenant laws. She enlisted neighbor Bea Hall to take pictures of the piled-up snow; she’ll include those photos in the letter-writing campaign. “I’m just one little person in a little complex, being a pest,” Akin said. “Watch out for me.”


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