Leadership Life-Stories: Community Resilience

I’ve been watching the news in Iceland closely over the past few weeks. Tremors from small earthquakes are shaking the countryside and an eruption is predicted soon on the Reykjanes Peninsula.

Dawnette and I had the joy of seeing an eruption up close and personal at Fagradalsfjall in September 2021 a few kilometers from the now-evacuated town of Grindavik. One of my memories of that day is hiking up the hills overlooking the lava flow, smelling the sulfur, hearing the pop of rocks, and feeling the heat as the lava crawls over the valley.

During my Fulbright Specialist project in July 2019, I took the time to visit another famous eruption site on the Westman Islands to connect to the thinking and practice of Leadership Life-stories. I’m revising some of these words from yesterday and reflecting on these thoughts today as I think about the possible eruption tomorrow.

Leadership Life-stories Among Community

While I typically focus on the individual steps of Leadership Life-stories, my time at the “Pompeii of the North” helped me understand the concept of Resilience and the community aspects of Leadership Life-stories.

In 1973, a mile-wide gash ripped open the earth in the town of Heimaey just off the southern coast of Iceland and among the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. Not only is this an amazing story, there are several elements that display how Leadership life-stories are also evident in groups and communities.

The photos are found at the Eldheimar museum on the island. Well worth the time to learn about this event.

As the volcano erupted in the evening of January 23 the community of about 5,000 people quickly evacuated to the mainland while crawling lava threatened the fishing harbor and the heart of the community. As the volcano Eldfell emerged, the belching magma and floating ash permanently changed the landscape of the island and lives of those in Vestmannaeyjar.

Many of the stories about this event focus on the evacuation of the people and the protection of the fishing harbor. As well as it should. These are some amazing narratives and a quick Google search shows additional pictures if you are interested.

I’m drawn specifically to the story of the creative solution to protect the harbor. The lava threatened to choke the harbor and cut off the fishing production plants. A plan was implemented to spray seawater of the advancing flow to cool the lava, stop the advance, and form a new breakwater. Not only was the main industry (fishing) protected, but the quick initial action and intentional planning over the five months of the eruption helped the town bounce back. Heat from the cooling magma was used by the town for the next 50-years to heat water, power systems, and make life comfortable.

Hiking to the top of the volcano and having this experience on the island I found myself thinking about resilience. I use a definition from Stoknes (2014) who suggests that resilience is: “an ability to adapt without losing the culture, community ties, and local traditions that make a place home.”

Resilience is made up of the initial shock or adversity and the ability to bounce back with positive adaptations. The initial shock/adversity can be a negative event or a positive event. Regardless, both provide opportunities to bounce back.

Individually, there are examples in our Personal and Professional lives that we can reflect on for our Leadership Life-stories. Communities also have examples of Leadership Life-stories. Currently, I’m watching as wars seem to sweep different areas of the globe and communities of people adjust and adapt as best as possible. In the town of Heimaey many of the residents evacuated were given housing in the other Icelandic towns and cities. My colleagues in the northern city of Akureyri said that several Vestmannaeyjahusin (Westman Island houses) were built for those from the island while Heimaey recovered. The fact remains that the town, the industry, and the people were resilient from this traumatic event.

My hope in this post is to begin our thinking about Leadership life-stories in our groups and communities and…to see some really cool pictures! I’m curious to see how the current eruption unfolds and the Leadership Life-stories of communities and organizations coming together are displayed.

Let's Connect

One of my strongest passions is connecting with others and hearing their stories. Even if we never work together, I’d still love to meet you, learn more about you, and hear some of your unique experiences.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you, future friend. 

Chris Hamstra

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