They say that when you have a near-death experience, your whole perception of life changes. I was never able to truly understand what this meant......until 8:12am on the 15th October 2013.
I woke up that morning feeling excited and energised. I was still feeling the high of a successful session delivered the previous day and had been given the opportunity to meet and network with some amazing people. I was due to leave the city of Cebu, Philippines, that afternoon after 2 days with the GM’s and Corporate Executive team of Carlson Rezidor Asia Pacific. It was their annual conference and the 130 delegates convened in Cebu to discuss the year that was and the years ahead over the next 3 days. I had been invited to deliver a Lego Serious Play Session on Fostering Innovation. Feeling satisfied that I had achieved the goals of the session, I was planning on having a lazy start to the day – a long, uninterrupted, email-free, hotel buffet breakfast followed by some leisurely shopping, exploring what the locals had to offer.
I was just about to get out of bed and get moving, when the building started to rumble. Slowly…at first. I jumped out of bed – thinking it would stop any second. But it didn’t stop... it got more intense. The tiles in my bathroom started smashing on the floor and I realised I needed to go get cover. I jumped under a table in the lounge. I could hear people outside my door screaming. Things were smashing and crashing. The building was shaking vigorously and I started to see plaster falling off the wall. I have never been shaken, quite literally, out of my comfort zone so quickly and so intensely. Was this building going to be able to withstand this for much longer? Was I going to die here? I was waiting for the floor to buckle or the roof to collapse on top of me. I was preparing myself for that to happen any second. And then………. it stopped. All of a sudden there was this eerie silence. I was alone - paralysed with fear and shaking? What do I do now? Did this really just happen? Am I still alive? What was I going to see when I looked outside? I expected that what lay ahead was going to be chaos and panic. I expected to be trapped in Cebu for at least a few more days. I expected to feel as isolated and alone as I was at that very moment. The next 5 fours that followed were about to reinforce and unveil some of the truths that I believe in and promote. As a leadership and development consultant, I am constantly focused on unpacking leadership complexity. That day in Cebu I witnessed leadership in its most raw form – the type of leadership that can’t be forged. The type of leadership that shows up when we are pushed so far out of our comfort zone that the only option for us is to embrace the challenge and ‘just keep swimming’.
I’ve broken it down into 5 Leadership Principles.
1. ALWAYS STAY FOCUSED
In my panic, I ran to the door to see if there was anyone outside. Relieved to see someone else, I almost broke down in tears. He took one look at me, could see I was white and starting to panic. He took my hand and very firmly said to me “Calm down – we need to get out of here.” In that instant, I snapped out of my unproductive state of mind and realised he was right. There was no time for panic; we simply needed to focus on getting out of this unstable building. A good leader needs to be able to quieten the noise and keep perspective, regardless of what is happening around him/her. There will always be obstacles to challenge you and so it is critical to be able to take a step back, regroup and refocus. As Rudyard Kipling says “If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs...”, you will inevitably come out as the person that people will want to follow.
2. BE PREPARED
We started to make our way to the evacuation stairwell and we saw a hotel staff member roaming the hallways searching for other guests.”Has this ever happened before?” I asked – looking for some comfort that perhaps this is something, which they had experienced and were prepared for. Some comfort that perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I had thought. He looked at me and with a genuine look of concern for us, he said “Never this bad – this was big!”. He quickly ushered us into the stairwell. After walking down 18 floors we finally reached the bottom and again I was expecting chaos, confusion, panic, pandemonium. Instead, there were hotel staff members quickly and calmly ushering us out to the gathering point in the car park outside. As soon as I made it outside, I saw more hotel staff members offering bottles of water to their guests and other hotel staff members handing out tissues. It was clear that this hotel had a contingency plan which kicked in immediately after the earthquake. More importantly, everyone knew the role that they had to play. A good leader not only needs to have contingency plans in place but it is also critical that your followers are equipped with the tools, knowledge and resources needed to support the plan.
3. BE AUTHENTIC
As I stood in the car park, the early morning sun already pounding down on Cebu, I realised that I didn’t have any shoes on. Then it dawned on me – OH MY GOODNESS – I’m in my pyjamas. I had literally just jumped out of bed. My hair was a mess and I hadn’t yet brushed my teeth. I looked around to see if anyone else was caught off guard by this earthquake..... No... everyone seemed dressed and ready for the day... Great! I had just spent 3 days trying to look professional and immaculate in front of my client. Trying to make a good impression and now I stand in front of them – exposed – with only tracksuit pants and a singlet to shield me. It was like a cruel nightmare except I wasn’t waking up. What I quickly realised though is that the only person that really seemed bothered about it was me. Also this incident had put us all on a level playing field. It did not matter what your level of experience or seniority were, if you experienced that earthquake you were rocked to the core, terrified and humbled by that experience. Yes, I was standing in front of my client in pyjamas but I had never been more authentic and real in my life and so were the connections I made with my clients on that day. Am I saying that you need to strip down to pyjamas for your next client visit? Absolutely not! I am saying don’t hide behind the suits and ties and corporate hierarchy. Be authentic and other people will follow.
4. IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU
e were ushered from the car park to the pool area where the staff of the hotel thought we would be more comfortable. I was totally amazed by their genuine concern for us. Even though they would all have family and friends who were caught up in the earthquake outside of the walls of this hotel, they did not stop working. Their professionalism and service, even in a time of disaster, was something I have never experienced. It was never about them and it was always about us – their guests! Once we all found some shade and got comfortable around the pool within 20 minutes there was a breakfast buffet set up and cold towels handed around to cool us down. In fact we were made to feel so comfortable that it was easy to forget what we had all actually been through. The aftershocks kept reminding us. But it wasn’t just about the service that we received. I observed the leadership team kick into action. They were constantly walking around checking in with people and making sure everyone was ok. They made themselves visible for questions or concerns. They put their own fears aside and focused on their team.
Finally, and most importantly, communication. Lyle Lewis, General Manager of the hotel was absolutely brilliant in keeping the lines of communication open. They set up a table for guests to ask questions – about their belongings, about travel details, about the structural safety of the hotel. Any time any news came into hand it was passed down to all the guests and there was never enough time to get anxious or allow rumors to initiate. It is, I believe, also the key to Lyle’s staff performing so brilliantly in a time of such panic.
This experience was, without doubt, the furthest I have ever been pushed out of my comfort zone. Although it was the most terrified and the closest to death that I have ever been, it was also such an enriching experience. I witnessed true leadership in action and feel so gratified to have been among such people. And, once again it reiterates that even when pushed out of your comfort zone in a negative sense, their is always that glistening learning opportunity which is such a gift.....provided we open our eyes and minds to see it.