Leadership and house building

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of going to a remote are of Sichuan and spend a few days there contributing to building a house for two families that had been badly affected by the earthquake there.

I went with 25+ young Chinese professionals and our evening conversations made the trip very memorable.

Upon reflection though, one aspect that really inspired me was the way Habitat for Humanity had structured the trip. How do you get 25+ busy professionals to take time out of their busy schedules to contribute this way – with their time and with their money? How do you get them to work in the rain for a full day – wet to the skin, and still in good cheer? How do you get them to sustain the effort over the coming days in spite of sunburn and dehydration?

It struck me that Habitat for Humanity was mobilizing and inspiring people in an exemplary manner – demonstrating strong leadership. How did they do it?

1: They shared a compelling vision of helping people in need and they made that vision specific: the opportunity to offer destitute people a decent roof over their heads.

2: They engaged people in a concrete manner and let them see how they could be part of the bigger story. People who were transporting bricks understood how their effort fitted in. People who were mixing mortar understood their contribution. People who laid the bricks saw the results and shared their joy with the others.

3: They built a strong team with simple symbols. Green T-shirts for all. Joint stretching in the morning, before the actual work started (see photo).

4: They defined small, simple steps that everyone could master – though the skill set was quite limited in the beginning.

5: They allowed people to use the opportunity to build new skills. Many of these professionals had never mixed mortar or laid bricks before. They were thrilled to learn something new. There was a tangible, short-term benefit for them.

6: They gave people choice. Participants were free to select which tasks they wanted to engage in. They were free to determine how much they wanted to work. In spite of no compensation (actually, the participants paid to take part), people worked hard. A measure of control over your own situation is hugely empowering.

7. They invited participation at a deeper level – they encouraged innovation. With 25 super-smart young people, the construction developed into a competition to see who could come up with the best innovations to speed up the process. Some sourced wheelbarrows from the local community to speed up transportation. Some built a small bridge to the building to enhance safety and let people pass one another going to and fro. Some brought in “Lean” principles and the kanban system. All very inspiring.

8. They celebrated. Each dinner was a celebration of the results achieved that day. the pride and the satisfaction were tangible.

In sum, these simple steps changed mindsets and behaviors powerfully. They made people act in completely new ways. They unleashed creativity and energy. And they did it in a fun way. My sense is that every participate would sign up again, given the choice. Habitat for Humanity has won deep loyalty.

Many organizations could glean inspiration from this simple example as they shape their change journeys and launch challenging transformations.

Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.