Leadership Lessons Association Executives Can Learn from the Montreal Flood

By Jonathan Cullen, CIC.C

On May 9, I joined thousands of volunteers fighting to protect Montreal-area homes and businesses in the wake of serious flooding. Montreal and other areas in Quebec remained under a declared state of emergency for days and many homes are still underwater.

As I hefted sandbags into waiting front loaders with other volunteers in Ile Bizard, I couldn’t help reflect on the amazing examples of leadership I was seeing and what they all had in common. We often look to business leaders for inspiration and it is sometimes refreshing to watch ordinary people, social workers, accountants and fitness instructors step up and lead a group of total strangers when the stakes are so high. None of these people were technically in charge; everyone there was a volunteer, from the equipment drivers to the people organizing food. But the leaders stood out for a few reasons.

First, the leaders in the group were extremely positive. They were direct and forceful, yet respectful. Their tone was upbeat, despite the very difficult work and the rough circumstances. They were the ones that made you feel it like were we doing something worthwhile.

Second, they created a sense of urgency, without rushing. This was an emergency, so we kept things moving at a lightning and almost muscle-tearing pace. But it wasn’t rushed. Everything was orderly and the tone and cadence was set by a few people. They also kept on an eye on safety. The environment was ripe for accidents with hundreds of volunteers mixed with dump trucks, excavation equipment and massive piles of heavy objects. They were always the first to direct people in safe patterns.

Third, they used humour. People were tired and some had family at risk of flooding. But we made jokes and it kept spirits up. More than that, it created a team out of a bunch of strangers, so when the next front loader arrived, we moved with urgency and coordination.

Finally, they rolled their sleeves up. I was moving bags down a line and turned to see one of the leaders standing next to me, taking them off my hands. We rotated in the line to make sure fresh arms got the hardest job of hoisting the bags off the ground. They were always in the rotation.

Society is lucky to have natural leaders like Ron, Eric, and Martine. I was really humbled to work with them and other extraordinary people today. You never know when one day you’ll rely on them to help your family.

Jonathan Cullen, CIC.C is a member of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association Executive Committee in addition to his day job as a Vice-President at Pfizer.