Originally created 06/13/06

The proven strength of roving leadership



One of the unfortunate aspects of all of the excitement and controversy over the newly released film The Da Vinci Code is that an important film has been largely neglected.

United 93 is a difficult film to watch since the entire audience knows, from the very start, what the outcome will be: Everyone on that ill-fated flight will die. The reviews of this film have been excellent and, having recently talked to a key participant in this tragic event, I feel that the director has been successful in telling this story with both care and compassion.

What most of the reviews of this film have missed is the brilliant depiction of "roving leadership" that took place among the passengers of United 93 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In a very short period of time, a group of people who did not know each other, and had never worked together to accomplish anything, managed to do some remarkable things. They put together a leadership team, identified among themselves some important talents, came up with an operational plan, executed that plan with considerable skill and succeeded in their primary goal of preventing the airplane from hitting and destroying an important target (probably the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.). The fact that they did not succeed in accomplishing a second goal of saving the airplane does not diminish, in my judgment, their extraordinary success during desperate circumstances.

I HAVE THE pleasure of teaching leadership and ethics to many diverse audiences both here in Augusta and also in a number of locations throughout the country. I try to emphasize that we are all leaders even though we may not be the boss of an organization. Bosses exercise "positional leadership," while non-bosses exercise "roving leadership." Let me explain: Suppose that there is a fire in a movie theater. What is very likely to happen is that someone in the audience will recognize the problem and immediately start to organize a quick evacuation so that everyone can survive.

Roving leadership also emerges in non-crisis situations. In my church, St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Augusta, a couple of creative people, seeing a real need to attract new parishioners, have come up with some wonderful ideas, and are already reaching out to others.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE here in Augusta is what happens at the soup kitchen on Fenwick Street. Volunteers show up at 8:30 a.m. and immediately organize themselves to prepare food for about 300 people. Roving leaders emerge within a few minutes, and when the meal is served at 11 a.m., the food is cooked, well-displayed and ready to be passed out by the volunteers. The two dedicated women who are in charge lead with a gentle hand, and allow leadership to emerge from among different folks each day. All leaders should encourage this "roving leadership' rather than trying to make all the decisions and to micromanage their organizations.

For those interested in learning more about roving leadership, I highly recommend the short but brilliant book by Max DePree, Leadership is an Art.

As far as the film United 93 is concerned, I recommend it highly. For those who may feel it would be too painful to watch, may I suggest the book Let's Roll by Lisa Beamer (Todd Beamer, her husband, was one of the passengers who exercised roving leadership). With the fifth anniversary of the tragic events of 9-11 fast approaching, I also recommend Heart of a Soldier by James Stewart - the extraordinary story of how one man, Rick Rescorla, who as head of security for Morgan Stanley, saved the lives of more than 2,500 people in the World Trade Center.

(Editor's note: The writer is the president of Visionary Leadership of Augusta. He is the author of Rules and Tools for Leaders, Assignment Pentagon and A Hero among Heroes: Jimmie Dyess and the 4th Marine Division.)