The most transformational leader I've ever known

Rene Steinhauer | 11/10/2016

He also practiced laissez-faire leadership. Sixth of a seven-part series.


Let me introduce you to Stan Brock*. He is director of Remote Area Medical (RAM), a humanitarian organization that delivers basic medical aid to people in inaccessible regions of the world. In my view, he is also the most transformational leader of our time. A transformational leader is most commonly described as one who walks the walk. That describes Stan Brock. But let me tell you a story about my experience with him in 2004 when this British gentleman, then age 70, supervised my team in Guyana.

Steinhauer_GBU6_ID_embed_SFWI’m a volunteer nurse who started working with RAM in 2001. Soon after, Stan asked if I would take on a special project. A remote jungle tribe was facing extinction and needed better access to emergency medical resources. RAM has a free aeromedical service in Guyana, but, to access the tribal village, an old dirt airfield from World War II needed to be repaired. He asked me to put together a team of people to accomplish the task, and I accepted.

The original plan was to drop the team into the location via parachute. Additionally, two other teams would cut 75 miles of trail through uncharted jungle in areas where there were no maps and the foliage was too thick for GPS signals to penetrate. Stan had cut a similar trail from Guyana to Suriname in the 1970s, so he knew what he was asking us to do.

How to do it? Your job, but you know where I am
He provided as many details as possible, but when it came to determining how the mission was to be accomplished, he left those details to me. That is Stan’s way. He finds a leader capable of accomplishing a mission and lets him loose to do the job. Rather than tell me how to accomplish the task, Stan became a resource for me as I planned the mission. I recruited skydivers (both medical and nonmedical), an engineer, and firefighters. I tasked our engineer with determining the best ways to make repairs in the time we had available on the ground. The skydivers then trained the team to parachute into remote locations. Our plan included ways to move dirt with ropes, pulleys, carts, and more. We were ready. Throughout the entire planning phase, Stan was always in the background to assist as needed, but he never interfered.

After two years of planning and training, the team landed in the jungle. (We were fortunate enough to be able to land in a small aircraft and not have to parachute.) It was one of the few things that went well. The jungle rapidly destroyed our technical plans for earthmoving, one by one. It won every battle; it always does. In the end, we were left with little more than a team of people with strong backs and equally strong personalities who worked long hours hand-quarrying gravel and loading it into 50-pound burlap sacks that we carried through the jungle and down the hill to the airfield. It was long, miserable work in hot and humid conditions. We were uncertain if we could accomplish the job in the time we were allotted.

Actions speak volumes
Stan had most certainly given our team the toughest assignment in the history of RAM. To be quite honest, I cannot remember if he even said thank you. He is a man of few words. What I do remember is this:

After we had spent about a week of hard labor on the airfield, Stan flew into the area to check progress and test some of the gravel. It had to be the right size to do the job but not get sucked into engines and propellers. He did his checks and looked at our progress—which was not on schedule—but made no comments about how we were doing. He then walked up the hill into the jungle where we were quarrying gravel, took off his shirt, grabbed a pick ax, and started digging into the earth.

After gathering a suitable mound of rock, he loaded a bag until it weighed at least 60 pounds, threw it on his shoulders, and started the march through the jungle to the airfield. When he arrived at the nearest part of the runway, where we were dropping our gravel into the many potholes that had damaged the field, Stan continued walking. He passed our work area and continued walking all the way to the end of the airfield to find the farthest and worst pothole that needed to be filled. After unloading that bag, he marched back to the jungle for more gravel. He worked this way with us for a few hours before he got back on the plane and flew out.

More than a mile in our shoes
At seven decades, this man worked as hard as all the younger men and women on the project. He let us know that he knew the pain and hardship we were experiencing to complete the mission. He let us know that if he could do it, we could do it. By the time he left, Stan had managed to ensure that none of us would have to walk as far to fill a hole as he had, because he had filled the ones farthest away.

In that situation, words would have been meaningless. But when a leader comes and walks the walk, it changes everything. The jungle destroyed every technical plan but we accomplished the mission. A few months later, during the rainy season, a pregnant woman needed an urgent medevac. Because of the repairs we had made to the airfield, she was saved, and so was her child. The mission was a huge success.

Since then, I have worked with Stan to provide nursing care in disasters around the world, from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the earthquake in Haiti to Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. His method remains the same. He asks me to do the job and then remains at a distance while I accomplish the task. He provides leadership when needed and is an available resource at all times. Yet, he never tells us how to accomplish our job. He empowers us to make the decisions and take responsibility for the results.

I’ve worked with RAM and Stan for 15 years, and he has always been the laissez-faire leader who allows his team to transform itself into a lifesaving organization on every mission. My many experiences with Stan Brock have helped me understand that the person I consider the most transformational leader of our time also practices laissez-faire leadership.  

*Seasoned—well-seasoned—nurses may recall Stan Brock from his time as co-host of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” TV series. Brock founded Remote Area Medical (RAM) in 1985. Staffed by volunteer physicians, nurses, dentists, and veterinarians, RAM delivers free healthcare services around the world. In 2010, Brock, who receives no salary for his work with RAM, was awarded the Inamori Ethics Prize by the Inamori International Centre for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

Rene Steinhauer, RN, EMT-P, has served as a nurse on all seven continents—as flight nurse in Antarctica; as combat medic in Iraq; as disaster manager following the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004), Hurricane Katrina (2005), Haiti earthquake (2010), and Typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines (2013); and as chief nurse in an Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia (2014). The author of Saving Jimani: Life and Death in the Haiti Earthquake, Steinhauer is presently working toward his MSN degree at Hawai’i Pacific University.

Part l: Nursing leadership? Reminds me of a movie.
Part 2: Transformational leaders: Change agents for good 
Part 3: When ‘bad’ is good: A time and place for autocratic leadership 
Part 4: Laissez-faire leadership: You’d have to be crazy to be this kind of leader 
Part 5: Trish and Cheesy: A story about transformational leadership
Part 7: In crucible of crisis, "Trust me" not enough 
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