“Meaningful Work” – Leadership Lessons From Hurricane Katrina

OLG BSLouis Katrina


“…take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them”  – Mt 6:1

As we finished loading our vehicles, and headed south through KY, TN and AL for the first of what would be many volunteer trips to the Gulf Coast, we each secretly contemplated the historic and possibly heroic nature of this disaster relief mission. Our natural, human egotism prompted each of us to aspire to great and courageous humanitarian deeds. In the earliest days of our Katrina relief trips I feared I was the only one entertaining such prideful and self-important thoughts. But in candid, reflective conversation with my fellow volunteers in the weeks and months to come, we all admitted to each other that part of our initial motivation to participate was the self-satisfying expectancy of doing great deeds. In other words – we perceived the value or “meaningfulness” of our volunteer work, at least in some part, in terms of our own sense of achievement and recognition.


Like thousands of other volunteer relief workers who headed to the Gulf Coast after Katrina, I was stunned and shaken by the near-total devastation and loss we encountered. Long before we reached the coast we drove through vast swaths of wreckage. Even 40 miles inland we came upon areas where trees and buildings were twisted and torn like grass in a lawnmower, by the tornadoes spawned in the storm. As we drove along I found myself dwelling on two questions: “If there is this much damage this far inland, what must the coast look like?” And then the question we all seemed to ask at once, “How can just one volunteer make any meaningful difference?”

“How can just one volunteer make any meaningful difference?”

On the final leg of the trip, down I-10 toward Bay St. Louis, MS, the full magnitude of Katrina’s fury was slowly unveiled as we neared the coast. But it didn’t really grab us by the throat, until we drove along the beachfront roads and bayou canals near sea level. We stared open-mouthed at street after street of bare concrete slabs, empty twisted stilts and wreckage as far as you could see. Even the trees were stripped of leaves and smaller branches. The enormity of the destruction slowly saturates your consciousness, and the dreadful vastness of 68,000 homes destroyed in just six hours consumes your reality – pushing all thoughts of home and comfort far into the background. Again you ask yourself, “With so many in so much need, how can just one volunteer make a meaningful impact?” With over a hundred miles of coastline ghoulishly disfigured; with homes and trees shredded and strewn about like plastic toys, you feel awestruck by the desperate circumstances facing hundreds of thousands of the coastal residents. You imagine yourself one measly drop, in an immense ocean of need.

A Drop in the Ocean, or
a Drop in a Thimble?

As we receive our first work assignment from local volunteer coordinators, and interact with other groups of volunteers, we begin to see how the incremental, seemingly insignificant actions of individual volunteers are aggregated and directed into focused pockets of effort. It becomes clearer to us how the efforts of small teams, focused on a larger vision, can make significant contributions to a much larger goal. Small groups from Ohio and Indiana; large groups from Wisconsin; and even larger groups from Michigan and Illinois are gathering all around us and carving up the “insurmountable” into smaller chunks of “possible”.  As hands and materials become available, the “ocean of need” is gradually divided into lakes and ponds; tubs and buckets; cups and thimbles. Eventually, each “cup” of need is defined for an individual family, and our volunteer crew sets off to do its part to fill that cup with all the time, materials and compassion we can muster.

The value of individual moments of service is defined, not by your own expectations for self-gratification, but by the shaken and suffering family in front of you and the explicit needs of that family. Your role is to put as many drops of hope as possible, into that particular thimble, and keep refilling it until it fills the cup of need for that family in that present moment. For the first time in your life it dawns on you what Mother Teresa meant when she said, “We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”

“We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”                

– Mother Teresa

A thimble might be a new roof, a freshly dry-walled bedroom, a coat of paint in the kitchen, or a wired and cabled frame, but it could just as easily be the humble drudgery of shoveling mud from the slab or collecting debris from a field and filling a dumpster. Yes, it is extremely gratifying to actually finish a home for a family and see the joy and relief in their faces. But you come to understand that every task completed for their benefit brings them equal joy and equal satisfaction, because every completed task brings them hope and moves them closer to recovery and stability. It crystallizes in your mind that there are truly no insignificant jobs – every task, however dirty, repetitive or menial, is still meaningful in the eyes of that family in front of you. Their love and deep appreciation are no less for the mucking of mud than the final shingles on a finished roof.

“Meaningfulness is in the Heart of the Receiver”

Were it not for thousands upon thousands of full thimbles, there would never be full cups; and if not for full cups there would be no full buckets. Buckets become tubs, and tubs become ponds, then lakes. And yes, eventually, the thimbles fill the ocean of need.

Lesson for Leaders

Whether you are a front-line supervisor, manager or C level executive, stop and think about how you measure the value of the contributions of individuals comprising your organization. Even more revealing, how do you perceive the value of the contributors, themselves? In each organization there exists an “ocean of need”, in terms of all the work that needs to be accomplished each day. Some of that work is regarded as very important and high profile; much of it is dirty and repetitive, yet all work is necessary for filling the many thousands of cups and thimbles and the successful completion of each day’s business.

How do you, as the receiver, define the meaningfulness of the work you accept from your team? Like the grateful families on the Gulf, do you treat all work with high regard and equal appreciation or do you take some of it for granted and devote your attention only to the work designated as “important”?  How do you think your reaction to their efforts affects the quality of work-life and level of engagement, for the rest of your team?

Lesson for Contributors at Every Level

Whether you are a design engineer, mechanic, HR administrator, manager, or machine operator, stop and think about the degree to which you devote your efforts to the success of the larger team.  How do you regard your work in relationship to your co-workers and internal customers?  Is it all about you?  Or can you honestly say you contribute your best in order to achieve the larger goals and objectives for the success of the organization?  Do you fuss over the seeming insignificance of your “thimble” or are you able to devote your energy to something larger than yourself?  Do you make the effort to engage your better self and accomplish ‘small things with great care’, to paraphrase Mother Teresa.


We arrived at the Mississippi Gulf Coast feeling like mere drops, overwhelmed by the immensity of the ocean of need before us. We wondered aloud how our modest contribution of work could possibly be meaningful in relation to the scope of the overall objective. Our pride spurred us to aspire to great and courageous deeds, but the faith, hope and gratitude of the residents taught us the value of filling just one humble thimble at a time…in service to the accomplishment of something incalculably larger than ourselves.

Let not one of us ever forget that lesson.


READERS: If you enjoyed this blog please connect with Bernie on LinkedIn and follow @Altrupreneur on Twitter



Father’s Day Gift – 8 Leadership Tips For My Kids & Grandkids

Father Child Leader Blog“We are one after all, you and I. Together we suffer; together exist, and forever will recreate one another.”    – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Of the scores of books and thousands of quotes I have absorbed as a student of transformational leadership these last thirty years, not one contains a speck more wisdom than this opening quotation from de Chardin. This Father’s Day, as a gift to my children and grandchildren, I would like to share eight simple reflections on the dignity, humility, responsibility and deep sense of honor that go along with the role of “leader”:

1. Embrace Humility and Vulnerability…Solomon’s greatest leadership trait was not the wisdom with which he was gifted by God, but the humility he displayed in asking for it, instead of seeking great wealth and power. The most endearing identifying characteristic of authentic conscious leaders is the propensity to put others first; to bathe in reflected light; and to open themselves up to the possibility of making mistakes by placing faith and trust in others. From childhood we are taught to share. Great leaders confidently share four essential things with their teams: Vision, Information, Ownership and Recognition. The only thing they keep to themselves is the blame if things go awry.

2. Don’t write people off for flaws you perceive in them…If you do you will soon find yourself alone in the middle of a room with no one or nothing to keep you company but your own flaws. The great theologian and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are one after all, you and I. Together we suffer; together exist, and forever will recreate one another.” Understand this – an unavoidable consequence of our shared humanity is our flawed nature. Transformation and growth are possible for everyone, even the seemingly incorrigible. The leader’s job is to facilitate the transformation.

3. Get to know yourself, no matter how uncomfortable it feels…Spend time in introspection and reflective practices. Become aware of your strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. Understand your hot buttons and make conscious effort to mute them. Step outside yourself and observe your interactions with others, then learn from the things that cause the most awkwardness and difficulty. Own your defects; no one else can own them for you.

4. Practice forgiveness as a habit, rather than an occasional act of condescension…If you learn nothing else in life, learn that carrying anger and vengeance around in your heart is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. Get over yourself; extend the hand; reconcile and give freely the gift of forgiveness to others. In doing so you will discover you have given the gift to yourself as well.

5. Seek higher consciousness…There is a better version of each of us waiting to be unveiled – physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. The battle to subdue ego is the greatest challenge an aspiring leader faces. Robert Greenleaf said, “Ego can’t sleep. It micro-manages. It disempowers. It reduces our capability. It excels in control.” The quest for higher self begins with first steps of intention and purpose and culminates in a deep appreciation for connectedness and collective intelligence. There is a reason you were put on this earth; take time for meditative discernment and allow your better self to take shape in your mind and emerge in your words and deeds.

6. Discover your gifts and share them profusely…We enter this plane of existence imbued by spirit with an abundance of gifts. It is intended that we share these gifts to depletion before we return to spirit. Use reflective and meditative time to discern your gifts and offer them to the world with generosity and joy. The world will respond with gratitude and reciprocation.

7. Welcome change and make it you partner…Einstein famously said, “It is not the strongest or most intelligent that survive, but the most adaptable to change”. Instead of hiding from change and hoping it will go away, visionary leaders learn to surf the waves of change with enthusiasm and agility. Great leaders maintain a clear-eyed focus on the long game and learn to practice “strategic improvisation”, as they leverage changing facts and circumstances to propel them closer to achievement of the vision.

8. Seek first to serve…The New Testament tells us more than once, “If you wish to lead, you must be the servant of the rest”. The modern term, “Servant Leadership”, was coined by the great business philosopher, Robert K. Greenleaf, in The Servant as Leader, an essay first published in 1970. Greenleaf writes, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first… the difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant – first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” To lead with a heart for service requires the Humility referred to in Tip #1, at the very beginning of this article. Putting others first is hard work but necessary work, in the personal transformation to conscious leadership.

READERS: If you enjoyed this blog please connect with Bernie on LinkedIn and follow @Altrupreneur on Twitter