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The Grenfell Tower volunteers showed us real leadership

Vyla L. Rollins is a member of our Board of Trustees and Executive Director at the London Business School's Leadership Institute.

Many individuals, myself included, are still processing the events emerging from Grenfell Tower on 14th June, which has been reported as the deadliest fire in Britain for more than a century. Given the uncertainty already created by other political and terrorist events in the past six months, the Grenfell Tower fire has added to the sorrow, loss and feeling of ambiguity already sinking into the heart and souls of many in the UK, and beyond.

I can remember waking up to Radio 4 at 6am on the morning of the 14th to early reports of a fire in a tower block in North Kensington. As I lay in bed for the next hour and a half, the rolling news reports were stark, fuelled by BBC eyewitness accounts of what was unfolding. Then, over the next 83 hours, stories of the aftermath of the blaze started to emerge. However, in the dark timbre of those reports (amongst which were many accusations and questioning of the paucity of government and local council response) there was one word that resounded for me like a drumbeat. This word, I sense, also helped comfort and give hope to those impacted by the fire at a time of deep despair and loss. The word was ‘volunteers’.

‘Volunteers from the local community.’

‘Volunteers from the Red Cross.’

‘Volunteers from Shelter.’

‘Volunteers from the music, entertainment and sport industries.’

‘Volunteers from the educational sector.’

‘Volunteers from the far reaches of Britain.’

And volunteers from other organisations that many had never heard of. They came forward. And they served. In any way that they could. Shifting. Sorting. Packing. Coordinating. Facilitating. Listening. Comforting. Embracing.

One of my mentors, Ron Heifetz, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, describes leadership as, ‘taking responsibility for hard problems beyond having formal or informal authority.’ He goes on to state that leadership is a process of understanding, exchanging information, working together-and that learning is required as part of that process. He also states it is not an easy or glamorous process. It is adaptive; it requires listening, watching and sensing and using the information gained from those activities to inform action. I strongly agree with him and, with this belief, am charged to point out that if you think about it, we were all witnesses to what real leadership looks like on the 14th June, and in the days that followed.

Not necessarily in actions made by those in positions of formal authority (offers of cash into bank accounts, helping to facilitate re-housing, etc.) although I cannot discount these as being helpful. But by the responses of the many volunteers – helping those impacted by this tragedy to claim their cash because many don’t have bank accounts; calming others troubled by being offered housing 200 miles away when their livelihoods and educational institutions for their children are in London; soothing and supporting those still in shock when offered re-housing in another high rise tower too reminiscent of the one that came so close to claiming their lives on the morning of the 14th June.

A cacophony of news stories of grassroots leadership exhibited by volunteers continues to emerge and find their space in the 27/7 news cycle. Many stories linked to individuals who are not in positions of formal authority. Leaders like a woman named Mercy. Mercy, who lives near the Tower, learned that two of her friends died in the fire and yet she still came to help. She said: ‘This is what they would want me to do, be out in the community. I don't want to take the day off, this is where I belong.’ I ask, is that not a mark of true leadership?

It is individuals like Mercy, who possess the spirit and will to serve, that I feel deserves our support and attention. And if other individuals possessing a spirit and will to serve also have the aspiration to equip themselves more formally, to bolster the impact and effectiveness their efforts can have within the community and organisations, then we should be ready to help. Ready to help them become the most effective leaders they can be. I, like my colleagues at Clore Social Leadership, am passionate about supporting and investing in sourcing, creating and delivering leadership development interventions for people in the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors. And the events at Grenfell Tower are one reason why.

I believe social sector leaders are the ones we’ll more than likely need and will increasingly look to in the future, to lead us through some of the most difficult and unprecedented social, community and organisational challenges of the 21st Century. So why wouldn’t you support efforts to develop leaders in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector, in any way that you can?

Please share your views and comments below, or you can join the conversation with Vyla on Twitter.

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