Building Leaders Through Crisis

Monday, June 25 2012

One side benefit of transitioning yourself and your business is that you can take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

My 28-year old son is working on The Rural Resilience Project; interviewing and video-recording community leaders from rural towns, who have unique insights into the challenges that are facing their communities and the transitions that are occurring there. When he asked, “Dad, how would you like to go on a road trip with me?” I thought long and hard…for about 3 seconds and said, “Sure!”

Our first destination was Elliot Lake, the former uranium-mining boomtown that transitioned itself into a retirement community after the second time it went bust. It’s a fascinating story with all the elements of good drama: heartbreaks, conflicts, hopes, fears, inspiration, leadership, remarkable teamwork, and a positive outcome.

The community rallied to deal with a common challenge; how to survive and thrive when overnight they faced 60% unemployment; residents walking away from their homes; and, a mass exodus of citizens that drastically reduced the tax base from a high of 25,000 to a low of 6,600! This was a crisis of epic proportions for a work force that was overwhelmingly highly paid but minimally educated. Businesses shut down. Utilities stopped maintaining and upgrading infrastructure. Banks and retail franchises left town. CMHC refused to insure any mortgages for nine years.

The mayor at that time was George Farkouh and he was re-elected for six terms because he kept his city alive. Now, twenty years later, the city has a stable economy, unemployment comparable to the national average, a population that levelled off around 11,000 and a growing business community. Here are some of the key lessons he shared:

  • Start with a positive attitude and confidence that you can do it. Communicate that to your people and never show fear.
  • Try things. Don’t be afraid of failure. Find creative solutions.
  • Ask for help. Tap the strengths of those around you. Reach out. Natural leaders will rise to the challenge. Support and develop those leaders.
  • Bring together a strong team who can not only visualize a better future, but also take action and do what needs to be done.
  • Never give up. “When you get knocked down, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go again.”

Today, Elliot Lake has a blueprint for continued success. They continue to review and adjust their strategic plan. New leaders have emerged to carry the baton forward. For Elliot Lake, transition and change is not an exercise in academic leadership, but a practical playbook for continued success.

Once again Elliot Lake’s community is facing a crisis. This article was written just a week prior to their most recent tragedy and we trust the resilience and strength of the residents will once again help them through this difficult time. From my son and all of us at The Achievement Centre, our thoughts and prayers are with the families.