About the Crisis Leadership Forum

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.

To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.

To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Looking Back at the Sichuan Earthquake Through the Lens of Katrina

In 2008, Meg Young was working in Sichuan Province helping develop a microfinance unit within one of the many rural towns that China’s sweeping economic progress had all-but left behind. She had worked with a handful of farmers to distribute the first round of microloans – about $100 each – just weeks prior to the Sichuan earthquake. She compares her experience during the crisis with lessons learned from Katrina.

When the earthquake hit, I was on the second story of a China Construction Bank with my friend. We had just handed over our passports and bank cards to the teller when the building lurched beneath us. We joined a mass of fleeing clients and tellers running through a hall, down a free-standing spiral staircase, through the lobby and out the doors. Then we looked around and saw there was nowhere else to run. Skyscrapers surrounded us in the 10 million person city; we simply clung to one another. The trembling and shaking dragged on relentlessly. We watched the buildings, trying to eyeball directions and trajectories of potential collapse. They heaved and cracked, but most withstood the worst of that 3 minute earthquake.  In the days and weeks that followed, aftershocks punctuated our circadian rhythms and rumors ran rampant, spurring pandemic scares, and fears of chemical explosions and spoiled water supplies. We were terrified – but we were alive.  

The rural villages closer to the epicenter were not so lucky. Where we faced rumor and conjecture, they saw reality in broken bodies and homes. 90,000 people died and another 6 million were displaced. The areas that were hardest hit – where entire towns were wiped away in an instant - were often the most remote, with access limited both physically and politically. In light of this, the relief efforts that ensued and the leadership they inspired were rendered all the more incredible.  

Reading recent posts on this crisis blog, I was struck by the way that post-Katrina lessons resonated with experiences we had in Sichuan following the earthquake. I've included a few of these key points and reactions below.  

"Empower people at the grassroots: Organizations should empower local leaders to make decisions based on the situations they face and then support those decisions." 

When the chance emerged to launch an earthquake relief project, our organization gave us the power to run with it. We had spent over a year and a half researching and developing a microfinance program 50 km outside the city. A week had gone by after the earthquake, and there was still no sign of us being able to reach the village.  Within reach, however, were dozens of cities devastated by the earthquake that could benefit from potential help.  

When we approached our organizational leadership half a world away about needing to develop a refugee children's relief effort, they didn't blink.  Within a week we had developed and launched the beginnings of a children's summer camp relief program. This would eventually grow into a weekly activity base and English-learning program for kids in Luo Shuai, a town where 1/3 of the children had perished during the 3 minutes of the Sichuan earthquake. 
"Encourage courage: Lead your organization in a way such that people aren't afraid to "bet their bars" and take personal risks."

We started with one mini-van full of volunteers, soccer balls, paint brushes, and sweat. The following weekend we had two vans, and three the next. By the fourth we needed to hire a local school bus and by the fifth we had reached capacity. It took 4 hours to reach the village that first day and another 4 to get home. The roads were cracked, collapsed, and filled with debris. Police officers at blockades lined the roads leading to the refugee camps. Cameras were banned. Passports required.  

We played all day in the sweltering summer sun with the children of Luo Shuai. The kids we met and played with were homeless, grief-stricken, and confused on many levels.  Two of their schools had collapsed when the earthquake hit mid-school day. Local estimates suggested that up to a third of the children in the village had died in the rubble.  Their town no longer existed as they remembered it. 

On the days that we played with them, however, they were just normal kids. The summer days were hot, school was suspended, and the refugee camps were boring. A gaggle of paint-brush wielding foreigners was a welcome diversion. 

A parent told us that watching the children play with us he saw them laugh and smile for the first time since the earthquake. "You don't understand," he said, "the rest of the week the kids just sit and stare. They are never this happy." On some weeks we saw parents standing off to the side of the playgroup and looking silently on. Some would cry. They had lost their children.  

"Develop flexibility: Develop a culture of flexibility, adaptation, and discretion while staying action oriented."

During these moments of playtime with Chinese refugee children, leaders emerged amongst the expat community and Chinese friends leading the volunteer movement. Some took on new roles entirely, while others experimented with variations of familiar roles. A retired schoolteacher who loved pristine order gave herself up to the hot lovable mess of the toddlers who would fling themselves onto her lap and never, ever, pronounce the alphabet correctly.   

A young British-Australian couple began to learn about one-another's abilities with children as they orchestrated musical games together. When the stereo broke down one day during "dance class," I - the resident Coloradoan of the bunch -  brought line dance to Sichuan Province.
I saw the most striking example of a new take on an old role in the Scottish manager of an alcohol production company. This man was used to wielding his command of the English language in a strong brogue as his most powerful tool. However, he spoke little Mandarin and ran out of things to say to the children quickly. He chose to spend his time with the project volunteering quietly off to one side, camera in hand.  While those of us that knew a bit more Mandarin chatted and played, this alpha male began quietly taking portraits of children at play and their families who watched them. The elders took a shining to him, noting that he possessed gray hair – like theirs – and an unending supply of images of their grandchildren in his camera. He was a hit with the 60 + set. 

A few weeks into the project, he told us sharply that he had asked his alcohol company to have  posters ordered and printed through "a connection with a bloke he knew."  He showed up the following week with three tubes stuffed with industrial-quality posters as tall as himself. In place of the usual liquor ads that he might have normally printed were hundreds and hundreds of photos of our kids and their families.  While we played that week, he went to the spots around the refugee camp where families could gather and quietly hung these life-size memories. For the rest of our remaining weeks, whenever we came or went from the camp, we could see community members – especially those elders - gathered around the photo collages and discussing whose grandchild looked handsome, whose daughter that was, and who got it in his mind to have his face painted into a butterfly pattern by the foreigners. 

Reading this blog, I know that the obstacles we faced following the Sichuan earthquake are common to tragedies worldwide. However, I am also heartened to see that in times of crisis we also share humane strengths. Across the board, it is the personal and organizational moments of empowerment, creativity, and courage that shape relief work and strengthen communities. Creative organizational leadership can make for fertile soil so that out of disaster we grow beauty and strength that we could have never imagined we possessed.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Managing Self in a Crisis

In an insightful blog post, Brian Bacon, CEO of Oxford Leadership Academy, writes of how our self-image shapes how we react in a crisis:

People with an outside-in obsession also have their sense of security linked to situations outside of themselves; hence they often look and feel out of control. This is disastrous for a leader. During times of crisis, the external environment is chaotic and uncontrollable… a person may lose his job, or feel unable to do a good job, or be thrust into a position beyond his ability to succeed. He may feel inadequate to the task. So, if one’s self-image and sense of security is linked to the external environment he will be in turmoil internally to an even greater extent. Why? Because fear is an illuminator and exaggerator of truth.

Intense fear of failure is an inevitable condition of those whose self-image is based on this outside-in illusion. How will I look? What will people think? Can I make it work? Are the conditions right for me to succeed? What if I fail? What is plan B? These are not the right questions for a leader.

The leader who outperforms during times of crisis is the one whose strength and conviction is generated from the inside-out, not the outside-in. The one who will not be swayed by flattery, fear or force, that’s the fellow we will follow, in spite of his flaws.
A few good questions to help define your purpose and what generates meaning: What story do I presently tell myself and others about who I am? What drives me? What motivates me to keep going? What is my passion? What are my most valuable assets? What is most valuable to me in life? What can I rely on, even if everything else is taken away? How can I change my story to be more aligned with what I know is true?

Brian Bacon concludes:

The economic crisis is here. You don’t have a choice in it happening or not, but you can choose the attitude you adopt towards it. This year will inevitably mark the beginning of a new chapter. There are outside factors, of course, but whether it will be the best chapter ever, or perhaps the worst, will, to a great extent, depend upon the attitude you choose.