Leadership Lessons from a Heart-wrenching Tragedy

Originally published on ProjectConnections.com April 2011.

Pardon me if I’m not my normally humorous self. I’m obsessing on disaster these days after the recent quake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant tragedies in Japan. While there have been plenty of tragedies in the past that could have consumed my emotional bandwidth (see the complete list on Wikipedia if you don’t already feel like self-medicating with tequila), this is much more personal. Just about every month for the last five years I’ve flown to Japan to work for a couple of weeks. From my home in the Silicon Valley, Japan seemed a long way off. Until now, that is.

On March 11 at 4:00 AM the iPhone on my bed table rang. It was my dad calling from my parents’ home in Florida. “Get up! Your friends are in trouble,” he said. I don’t know what he thought I could do about a natural disaster occurring over 5,000 miles away, but that’s my dad—no matter how dire the circumstances, he always thinks there’s something a person can do to make a positive difference.

Through my work with global Japanese companies I’ve met thousands of people who live in Japan. Many I consider friends, and some are as precious to me as my dear ol’ dad. I had just returned from Asia two days ago, and I was in Tokyo only five days before the quake struck. So up I got, and immediately scoured the internet for news from Nippon, or 日本 as it is known there. Needless to say, what I saw was tragic beyond comprehension.

As the disaster unfolded before my eyes, I watched a tsunami wash away an entire village. At that moment, any illusion of separateness I may have felt was washed away with that village and those lives. This was not an event that I perceived as happening to “strangers,” people distant from me. No, at that moment, with so many ties to people living in Japan, I strongly felt that this was happening to “us.”

Shared Pain Focuses the Mind

Immediately, I felt an overwhelming urge to help. Figuring out how to help took a while, but there was no question that I needed to be a part of the solution. I could fill this article with the personal stories of people I know, and how they are carrying on in the face of a continuing series of threats and disasters, but there are plenty of places you can read about that. Instead, let’s honor the memory of those who have suffered and died by exploring what this experience can teach us about being better leaders. I’ve boiled it down to the following three insights for starters, though there are surely more lessons to be learned:

  • “We-centric thinking” clarifies the goal and focuses people on finding solutions.
  • The human mind has a limited ability to imagine risks. There is no bottom to “worse.”
  • “Possibility thinking” is effective even in tragic and seemingly impossible situations.

Crisis Creates Clarity

The moment I grasped the situation in Japan (thanks to horrifyingly vivid videos on the web and graphic descriptions of events from my friends living there), I was immediately willing to do whatever necessary. The overarching goal was so clear, and the need so immediate and compelling, that I was willing to do whatever I could to help. I started contacting people on both sides of the Pacific to see what could be done, and so did many others. Perhaps most inspiringly, the people of Japan reached out to help each other with a depth of compassion and selflessness that left the world in awe. One American woman living near the affected region wrote us that, in this time of food shortages, she returns home each night to find that someone has left food on her doorstep. Heck, after forgetting to pack my lunch for a recent university alumni picnic, I sat—foodless—with a couple who never even offered me so much as an olive.

Imagine if everyone involved in a challenging project first and foremost had an attitude of “What can I do to help?” What if each of the people involved on your project—teammates, sponsors, executives, suppliers, and customers—brought that attitude to every meeting and discussion? Don’t get me wrong, I believe that most people intend to help, even if that intention is buried deep within their psyche. But it gets obscured by time pressures, differing perceptions of the goals, and competition for resources, not to mention pride, turf wars, and ego.

Over the years I’ve noticed a sort of fragmentation that occurs in some business ecosystems that can be summed up as “us vs. them.” In stressful business environments (which is basically all of them, but who’s counting?) I’ve witnessed a variety of different schisms:

  • Our company vs. the customer
  • Our team vs. the execs
  • Me vs. “the others”

When I facilitate team effectiveness workshops, I sometimes divide the participants into two groups and locate them in opposite corners of the room, giving both groups the same instructions: get the other group to come to their corner of the room. Then I sit back and watch. Even when the entire group is comprised of people from the same company, even the same division—people who know each other, for crying out loud—successfully completing the task by simply having the groups switch positions is a solution that eludes them for as long as 23 minutes. (Yes, that’s the world record, but I’m sworn to secrecy which company it was.) Separating people by as little as 4 meters is enough to cause the “us vs. them” syndrome.

As long as the illusion of separateness persists we can find ourselves working at cross-purposes with the very people needed to achieve our goals. When instead we view ourselves as “we,” we’re unencumbered by the obstacles of ego, hierarchy, and competition. Adrift on the same iceberg, we’re instantly united in helping each other find solutions that enable us to step safely onto the shore of success. When we create this sense of unity among the various stakeholders (ideally without the presence of an external hazard, natural or man-made) we get everyone involved and focused on making a positive difference.

There Is No Bottom to Worse

In view of the fact that multiple layers of backup systems failed in the Fukushima nuclear power plants, I’m of the opinion that human beings have no imagination for disaster.

In Scrappy Business Contingency Planning the author (and my friend), Michael Seese, admonishes those doing disaster planning not to focus on what kind of disaster might interrupt power&mdashponly on what to do when that power is interrupted, as it will surely be. Michael has a talent for gloom and doom thinking, but I doubt that even he could have imagined all of the ways things could go badly wrong at the power plants. When I asked him to comment by email on the unfolding nuclear nightmare, he replied, “In some sense, I see the Japanese response to the events at Fukushima as being like our Y2K preparation efforts. I worked on several Y2K remediation projects. I couldn’t help but smile when—after the clock struck midnight and our world didn’t grind to a halt—people said, ‘Nothing happened! Look at all that money that was wasted.’ Of course, nothing happened—because we spent that time, effort, and money. It’s the same thing in Japan. Who could say what would have happened had they not pumped in seawater, and dumped more water in by helicopter?

“One takeaway from this disaster,” Seese continues, “is that business contingency plans need to tested, and re-tested. Of course, it’s not practical to test a nuclear meltdown. But hopefully the lessons learned at Fukushima Daiichi will enable Japan—and other countries—to make their nuclear power plants safer.”

Yes, let’s all hope so. I know some people think “dilution is the solution to pollution,” but our vast oceans can only absorb so much radioactivity.

Even in Japan, where risk aversion, attention detail, and avoidance of failure are legendary (almost a national pastime), engineers failed to imagine the recent catastrophic string of events and design around them. In my experience, no amount of risk assessment and planning captures all possibilities. No matter how thorough we believe our risk assessment has been, no matter how many “lessons learned” from past projects we apply to the present, things can always be worse than we imagined. Something more than risk management and post mortems are required. I personally believe that is a plan to deal with the worst-case scenario if it should happen in spite of our best efforts. We need to apply “Contingency Planning”—not merely risk analysis—to our projects. Especially in situations with extreme consequences for unanticipated failure, we need to be asking ourselves the question, “If things still go wrong, what are we going to do about it?”

The Best Is Always Yet to Come

“We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” – John W. Gardner, US administrator (1912 – 2002)

Faced with the choice to either give up hope or trudge on in a hopeless cause, I’m prone to choose trudging. Why? Because if I’ve learned anything in 20 years of leading, and working on, all kinds of projects with varying degrees of impossibility, it’s that human beings—myself included—are notoriously poor judges of when something is hopeless.

Even in the most dire circumstances, asking “What does this make possible that wasn’t possible before?” helps open the mind to creative ideas and breakthrough thinking. I’ve been pondering this in relationship to the quake/tsunami/meltdown triple tragedy, and so far I’ve come up with a few possibilities:

This will bring the world closer to Japan. People all over the world have voiced their admiration of the dignity, compassion, and selflessness of the people of Japan. My friends in Japan are a bit amused by how much attention the press is giving to the headline, “There’s no looting!” They can’t imagine why anyone would loot. While some cynics say it’s just that negative events aren’t being reported, I disagree. I can personally testify to getting my wallet back with over 30,000 yen in it after leaving it in a Tokyo taxi. The driver delivered it to my hotel for free, left it at the front desk, and it was returned to me the next morning.

This will bring Japan closer to their neighbors. After years of icy relationships, Korea and China sent help to Japan . . . and Japan accepted.

This will bring the people of Japan closer to each other. Disasters have a way of recalibrating us about what’s important. In a country where avoiding risk is almost a national pastime, living with the daily threat of aftershocks and longer-term consequences of nuclear contamination are likely to shift thinking about risk. Now that daily life is risky, perhaps other kinds of risk-taking, like innovation and breakthrough thinking, won’t seem quite as dangerous by comparison. As Helen Keller said, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that any project you or I may be working on can’t be nearly as dreadful as the situation unfolding in Japan. Consequently, I’m quite certain that we can find some “great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems” in whatever project currently stymies us. Even if it’s true that the situation is hopeless, the illusion that we can make a difference can inspire us to build capabilities that make the next situation less so. There are advantages to leading your team as if the best is yet to come while dealing with the current reality. Jim Collins labeled this “The Stockdale Paradox”:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” – Rear Admiral James B. Stockdale

The New Normal

Some of my colleagues at ALC Education in Tokyo slept on the 19th floor of their office building the night of the quake as they waited for trains to resume operation. Others—parents with stranded children—walked for six hours or more to get home to them. In the weeks that followed they weathered power shortages, devastating news of the missing and the dead, and ongoing scares from aftershocks and radiation. Through it all the people of Japan are inspiring the entire world through their stunning examples of selflessness and compassion—two ingredients that I feel quite sure I can use to improve my next project. I hope we’ll all emerge committed to applying these and the other lessons learned to our projects and our lives as life on Earth returns to the “new normal.”

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