Nancy Kauffmann is denominational minister for Mennonite Church USA.
I traveled to Saipan under Mennonite Disaster Service and FEMA last month.
Our group was to repair homes that had been damaged by the 2015 typhoon Soudelor. There are still a number of homes without roofs, windows, electricity or running water. After committing to a three-week assignment and traveling 7,500 miles, the enthusiasm and excitement for the project was very high. The group consisted of five skilled workers in construction and five unskilled workers. I was one of the unskilled, but was very eager to work hard and to learn some new skills. I must admit though that my heart sank a little when the crew leader referred to us women as girls. I know from past experience that reference usually means we wouldn’t be taken seriously. We wouldn’t be trusted to have enough strength, stamina or knowledge to help in a significant way on the project and relegated to the side. I was praying that this wouldn’t be the limit to my experience.
On that first day of work, the crew leader quickly broke down my stereotype of the kind of leader he would be. He welcomed us as a legitimate part of the team, assigned work, gave good instructions and then trusted us to do the work. I also experienced that same attitude from the other skilled workers as well. I felt empowered and energized as the other women and I ran the chop saw to cut purlins, used the impact drivers, climbed up on the scaffolding to work on ceilings, started the generator when needed, carried sheet metal and plywood for the roof, painted and assisted in wiring two houses.
The work was invigorating and the atmosphere was empowering, even though we were working long hours in hot temperatures with high humidity. We felt like we were all contributing to something bigger than any one of us.
After the second day, the crew leader addressed us as women and told us how impressed he was with our work and our spirit. I was moved. It was a gift to all of us unskilled workers and encouraged a “can do” attitude within us that contributed to the productivity and experience of the team.
Once back in the Leadership Development office, I was preparing for leading a leadership training event. It was while I was looking for something on the internet that I was reminded that there are a multitude of books, articles and blogs on leadership. In fact, one can place almost any adjective — creative, bold, transforming, missional, servant — in front of the word leadership and find a resource for that particular type. Then I thought back to my experience with the group in Saipan and realized that I had experienced a number of foundational qualities of good leadership that helped to make the time there a good experience for us all. The qualities I experienced were:
- Leadership that was affirming, respectful and empowering. I believe leadership has the power to encourage, discourage or even damage the human spirit of another.
- Leadership that was never dismissive of anyone’s contribution and allowed one to try new things. Good leadership has the ability to see the potential in others or at least create an environment that allows others to grow and surprise the leader with what they can bring to the team.
- Leadership that was not threatened by the presence of others on the team. There is a big difference between an arrogant leader and a confident leader.
- Leadership that was open to the ideas of others and deferred to anyone who had more knowledge about a particular aspect of the work. Good leadership values what others can bring and see it as enhancing the effort of the team.
- Leadership that willingly admitted one’s own mistakes. Taking ownership in one’s mistakes encourages others to take ownership in their mistakes.
- Leadership that was gracious when others made mistakes. Giving grace removes the fear factor and encourages others to take initiative that could benefit the team.
- Leadership that took responsibility to keep the group moving forward and to lay out the work that needed to be done.
- Leadership that knew how to say thank you and celebrate in special ways. Good leadership makes others feel valued and appreciated and increases the morale on the team.
I would call the leadership that I experienced on that MDS assignment Leadership 101. It had the basics that inspired, empowered and affirmed us to be and to give our best.
The spirit that was nurtured within us as a team was also noticed by the families whose homes we were working on and led to some interesting comments and good conversations about faith and life.
A side note: One older woman, who owned the home we were working on, asked how old we five women were. When we told her, she just shook her head and said, “We women that age don’t work that hard here.” We all laughed and assured her that we don’t work that hard back home either.
The work in Saipan is continuing through to the end of 2017. If you have interest in volunteering for that assignment contact John Eshleman with MDS at firstname.lastname@example.org