Leadership Lessons Often Come in Moments of Crisis
There are, of course, days you always remember. Some stick in your mind because of the sheer joyfulness of a moment. My wedding day. My first workshop. The court appearance to finalize adopting our kids.
Others stay with you due to the overwhelming emotion or tragedy of an event. Watching my father pass. Sitting in a Hong Kong hotel watching news of the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Then there’s September 11, 2001.
Once again I was out of the country leading a workshop in Barbados. It was the last day of this training to help inspire and equip entrepreneurs. The participants slowly made their way into the room, even though we were supposed to start 10 minutes ago. They really do operate on Island Time in the Caribbean. And that’s not a bad thing.
Eager to get started I greeted everyone and steered towards the first topic of the morning. We barely get started when my coordinator came in and announced that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Twin Towers.
And the rest of the day unfolded. A second plane crashed into the other tower. A plane crashes into the Pentagon. Another into an open field. The Twin Towers burn. In desperation and despair, we see people plummeting to the ground rather than risk death in the fiery buildings. The Towers collapse. Almost 3,000 died that day and more than 6,000 were injured. It was a devastating moment in USA history on USA soil.
I don’t know who was more stressed at the day; me or the fine people of Barbados who sat riveted to the TV in a conference room. I wanted to make sure our agenda was covered but it became obvious that CNN International would prevail that day.
LEADERSHIP LESSON 1: Sometimes productivity yields to the events of the day. Surrender to it and be there for your people.
Stuck in Paradise in Not Always a Good Thing
So we finished the day as best we could. I packed up. I was to fly back home tomorrow.
Except I wasn’t. ALL FLIGHTS TO THE UNITED STATES FROM ANYWHERE CANCELLED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. That included Barbados. I was stuck in this Caribbean paradise for at least a few more days.
When I tell this story, I have a hard time garnering sympathy for my plight.
“Oh, too bad for you! You were stuck on a Caribbean island with white sandy beaches, delicious food, and nothing to do!”
Yet I couldn’t enjoy it. All I wanted was to get back home. Instead of enjoying paradise, these thoughts kept coming back into my mind during the next four days.
- Never before had I missed my family so much than when I wasn’t sure when I would see them again. When travel to the U.S. was halted it was announced that it was indefinite. In other words, we don’t know when it will be resumed. I could not be with my family during a crisis. Not able to support them, quell fears, or provide comfort. All I wanted to get back home to them.
LEADERSHIP LESSON 2: Ultimately, what really matters is those we love and who love us. Choose love every time. Love your family, love your employees.
- I felt incredibly helpless. Being in a foreign country, my first thought was to seek out the U.S. Embassy in Bridgewater. When I walked the 20 minutes it took to get there, I was informed the embassy was closed to everyone because of the circumstances. So the one place that was supposed to help me in an emergency was not available to help me. There were no options that would get me back onto U.S. soil; not even to Puerto Rico. There was nothing to do but wait.
Big Thought. How many employees feel helpless to change their circumstances in the workplace? Change is happening all around them and they don’t know their value or where they fit in. They are not able to make decisions or take actions without the bosses approval. More likely it won’t happen unless it was his idea anyway. All that is left for them is to show up and collect a check. It has to be hard to see any hope on the horizon.
LEADERSHIP LESSON 3: Empowerment prevents helplessness and hopelessness. If you want people to get things done, give them the ability to get things done without you.
- I thought of the people in the Twin Towers and in the Pentagon. Almost all of them simply going to work like they did every day. I considered how many of them lost their lives while doing a job they hated, working for a tyrant boss, in a repressive atmosphere. I reflected on how their lives were lost at work when they really would have rather been anywhere else that day. They likely never felt fully valuable or fulfilled or that what they did really mattered. They may even have felt that they didn’t matter.
Just before the building became a fireball the boss may have told them that a monkey could do their job. That admins are a dime a dozen. Or that their only job was to do as they were told. To paraphrase the poet, they died with their song still inside their heart.
Toil without song is like a weary journey without an end.H.P. Lovecraft
LEADERSHIP LESSON 4: Everyone matters. Everyone has a song. The greatest thing a leader can do is help their people sing.
Why do I do this? Why do I work to help bosses become the leader everyone wants to work for?
I work to help the employees (and managers) who feel helpless and hopeless. Who have priorities mixed up. The people who are not empowered and the bosses who don’t empower them.
I do this because everyone has a song, including and perhaps even especially leaders. And that song needs to be let out. For we never know how long the opportunity to sing will exist.