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More Leadership Lessons from West, Texas

I just spent a weekend in Zone 3 at the fertilizer explosion site in West, Texas. I can’t get the images out of my mind. Of 157 homes in Zone 3 only three are OK. Seventy are unsafe and the rest are potentially okay with a great deal of work. The two we worked on yesterday and today are to two of those potentials. In my mind neither can be safe again. I can’t imagine the homeowners moving back into these houses.

So I thought about this week’s blog about leadership and where I go from here with these images on my mind.

I’m angry that the explosion is “out-of-sight/out-of-mind” for so many people in America today. My great franchisee in Milwaukee, Wis., Dave Kozlowski, tells me he never hears about it anymore. At the same time I hear the news stories that more than $25 million has been raised for Boston and less than $1 million for West.

I understand that one involved a terrorist and the other did not. On the other hand, the loss of first responders in West was the largest loss of first responders since 9/11. And the damage in West dwarfs the damage in Boston. We know about the 15 people who lost their lives that day in West; what you don’t hear about are the hundreds with injuries that may result in more lives lost and, at best, will take a long time to heal.

So I come back to leadership and I start to realize, after the first two days, that leadership comes in all ages, backgrounds and sizes. Somehow I confused the fact that a leader is a leader in everything they do. In retrospect I think I am dead wrong.

In the last two days I’ve seen hundreds of leaders. I’ve witnessed people giving of themselves for the good of others. I’ve seen people driving down the street with a load of lumber offering to board up homes. I’ve also witnessed people handing out sandwiches. And people offering support. Some individuals are walking door to door asking what they can do. These people are not waiting for someone to direct them. Instead, they take the lead and get things done.

I’m not sure these people are leaders in anything else they do in life. By looking at some of them, I doubt it. But they are tremendous leaders in West.

I thought about some of the leaders I saw at church this morning. They are leaders in the congregation but I can’t tell you they are leaders in their work. So what is this mystique about leadership? Is it an exclusive club one needs to educate themselves to join?

Some think it must come from the books we can buy on Amazon. When I went to Amazon and entered the keyword “leadership” in the books section there are 91,027 results. No wonder I get confused. The question is do you get confused like me?

After a week of being in West every night I have a whole different view of leadership and I want to share it with you.

I believe leadership is a choice. It is something that you can choose to be in part of your life but not in every part of your life. This is situational leadership. Until the past week I’m not sure I bought into this. Today, I espouse it.

In the next week do yourself a favor.

Choose an area where you can be a leader. Maybe it is at work. Or, at your favorite charity—they always need help. Perhaps it is with your little league. Or maybe it is with your church. Maybe it is even with a Cub Scout group.

People need you. Today. Right now.

Leadership is a choice you make. You don’t have to read one of the 91,027 books. You know in your heart where you can help. Your helping can make a huge difference.

This goes back to the “act as if” phenomenon. If you act as a leader—even though you don’t think you are one—you will become one. Trust me. People will appreciate you and you’ll go home at night having this peace and comfort that you might have never had before.

West, Texas: Lessons in the Midst of the Explosion

“Leadership is something that can be learned. I don’t think anyone is born with it — anymore than I think anyone is a born salesman, born accountant or born athlete. I also believe that great leaders keep learning from other even greater leaders. It happened this week.” —Mark Liston

At 8:25 p.m. my wife and I were watching a movie on HBO when the phone rang. It was Todd, one of the guys in our marketing department and he was looking for Doug Dotson’s phone number. Doug, who has served as a frequent contributor to glassBYTEs.com™, is now the Glass Doctor franchisee in Waco, Texas. He made the decision last August to join with his wife, Karen, in this endeavor and leave corporate.

Todd told me that there had been an explosion in West and that one of his coworkers, Jennifer, had her windows blown out just three miles away from the blast! I gave him Doug’s number and a few minutes later Doug was on his way to Jennifer’s house. Only later I learned of the force of the explosion and the devastation as we switched to local TV to see the news reports.

It had to have been an unbelievable explosion.

At 10:41 that evening I received a call from Dina Dwyer-Owens. Dina is the CEO of the Dwyer Group, a company with seven brands, including Mr. Appliance, Mr. Electric, Mr. Rooter, Rainbow, Grounds Guys, Aire Serv and Glass Doctor. In all, the company has nearly 1,700 franchisees internationally. You might have seen Dina on Undercover Boss last year posing as Faith Brown.

I had met Dina nearly a decade previously through her involvement in the International Franchise Association (IFA). She went on to serve as the chairwoman of the IFA a few years ago, leading the association of nearly 1,300 franchisors, including companies such as McDonalds, Subway and Valpak — where I previously worked. It was because of Dina and her powerful leadership that we made the decision to leave Florida and move to Waco.

At about 10:41 that evening, Dina is calling me to see if there is anything the Dwyer Group should be doing to help our neighbors just 18 miles to the north with boarding up houses and businesses.

This didn’t surprise me. Over the past three years in Waco I had come to appreciate Dina’s sincerity and the company’s code of values that was highlighted on Undercover Boss. The company, along with our franchisees, are committed to helping causes such as the Ronald McDonald House, food pantries and many others.

Thursday morning the company was delivering pallets of wood to West for window boarding. At 10:30 that morning there was an (optional) meeting for all associates on campus and in the field that gave an update of the situation and finished with a prayer.

Several of our employees were directly affected by the explosion. One of my franchise consultants called at 9:30 Wednesday night in a panic because her grandkids were helping people out of the blast and telling me her daughter was an employee of the nursing home that was destroyed. Fortunately, she was off that night. Later we found that it will take three years for the nursing home to be rebuilt and all employees will lose their jobs as of the end of April.

I went to West on Thursday night with a couple of employees hoping to help in boarding up windows. We found we couldn’t get past a perimeter set up about a mile from the explosion. Estimates were that 60 houses no longer existed and hundreds of others had severe damage. While in West I started to hear the first-hand accounts of what happened.

Doug and I were back in West Friday night to board up a business on Main Street. Earlier, Anderson Cooper, Matt Lauer and others had been in that very business doing interviews.

Throughout all of this I’m keeping Dina posted about access to the locked-down perimeter where most of the damage has taken place. She wants to be there with us boarding up the homes and is starting a list of people that she knows we can help. If we were able to get in on Saturday she was available.

This is all without fanfare. This is all without recognition. But it is an example, for someone like me, of how I can become a better leader. I just have to watch and take note.

Leadership comes in all different forms. I like how Dina Dwyer-Owens does it.