On May 22, 2011, around 6:20 p.m. I was walking down Connecticut Avenue in Joplin, Missouri. The debris on the street was heavy as I headed towards my office nearly 7 blocks away. I needed to grab my laptop before I headed to the emergency command center. The story of the physical destruction of the “Joplin Tornado” is well documented. However, the human suffering over the last five years is hard to quantify. Even today it remains present in Joplin although you can’t always see it. I have learned many valuable leadership lessons since that day in May that I will carry with me always. None so much as the leadership balance between organizational objectives and compassion. The yen and yang of head and heart. The fact is effective leadership isn’t always defined by the black and white of policy or the ever-present focus on the bottom line. Without question, we live in an era where results sometimes seem to be the only thing that matters.
The unfortunate truth is that compassion can easily get lost in the day to day grind of leadership in a “results only” culture. Think on this. Right now, in every organization in this country, there are employees that have come to work to achieve organizational objectives, but have been impacted in some way by personal loss or struggles. In large part, the culture of an organization is defined by how it responds to its employees when life happens. And the only way a leader can establish that culture is to know when life has happened to someone in the organization.
Shortly after our disaster, we added a new item to our daily leadership agenda that I hope other leaders take to heart. Agenda item number one became a status check of our “Joplin Schools Family.” Even in the months and years following the disaster we continued that practice. I had 1,200 employees and, within 10 minutes of starting our meetings, I knew who had just had a baby, who had lost a loved one, who was suffering from health issues, divorce, and a myriad of other life challenges faced by our people. It gave us the opportunity to help where we could, even if it was just a note of encouragement, a phone call, a personal visit, or a gift card to help with groceries. The point is just knowing what is was going on with your people can help you lead more effectively. It doesn’t mean that organizational objectives have to come second. But knowing whether someone needs a kick in the pants or an arm around the shoulder can help make sure you are building a culture of support balanced with high expectations.