Everyone Needs a “Leading in Crisis” Story

A good friend is leading a group of students on a course in history and leadership in a part of the world where street crimes are rampant and Americans are not beloved.  Two other leaders had to drop out at the last minute, and my friend was thinking through how to lead this group safely without backup leaders.  I summarily dismissed the concern.  He’s a former Marine.  This is what they do.

And then I had this overwhelming compulsion to hop on a plane, go with the group, and help this leader.  Although I curbed this instinct, what on earth made me think that I would be anything other than a liability if a crisis occurred?  Although I’m a runner, physical strength is not my greatest asset.   I do know how I lead in a crisis, however, and that is my strength.

My leading in a crisis story is about September 11, 2001.  I was working for IBM, assigned to JP Morgan Chase in lower Manhattan.  On that beautiful clear day, I was walking to work down Wall Street to Water Street and saw hundreds of bits of paper in the air.  It was on fire.  I did not know it at the time, but the first plane had just hit the Tower a few blocks away.  When I arrived on the 18th floor of the JP Morgan Chase building, the second plane hit the Tower.  That began a day of shared leadership.  The IBM team was five people, one an ex-Marine (this is a continuing theme).  My role defaulted to communicator and his was scavenger and guide.  I immediately located another team member who was in the IBM building near Ground Zero.  Data lines were working and phone lines were not, so several remote IBM teammates were giving me guidance about the situation, as they saw it on TV.   We made the decision to evacuate the 18th floor, and headed for the basement.  Most of the crowd was on the ground floor, which was chaos.  Many people were yelling directions to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.  That is when we began to lead our team in this crisis.

First decision:  Do not take directions from anyone who is not in uniform.

Second decision:  Do not walk across a bridge if a city is under siege.

Third decision:  Establish communications.   I found a working phone in the facilities management office and made a call to the IBM leader to report on the team.

Fourth decision:  Get food.  The ex-Marine immediately made the assumption that entrepreneurial New York delis would still be open.  He got sandwiches and water.  Very prescient.

Fifth decision:  Leave as soon as possible and don’t be attached to possessions.

We walked out of Lower Manhattan all the way to Grand Central that afternoon with only our essentials on our backs.  (In IBM, you never leave your laptop behind!)

The point of this story is about personal leadership lessons.  One might have panicked.  I found myself becoming very calm, and I was keenly aware of the importance of that gift of calmness.  I was calculating the height of the Tower and if it would hit us when it fell (did not know it would implode).  I was thinking about underground fires and how we would maneuver.   I got a message to my daughter that I was OK.   Most important, I knew that previous crises had tested me, and I had the internal strength to keep moving, make sound decisions, and take care of others.  I had done it before.  That was my “story”.

Each of us needs our story about leading in a crisis.  That story will see us through the tough times.  I am thinking about all the victims of the wildfires, and the folks in Colorado Springs who went back to see only the foundations left of their homes.  They are looking crisis right in the eye.  This is it .  This is the test.  If you can say, “I’m alive and grateful”,  “Let’s make a plan”, and “How can I help others?”, you are leading in this crisis.  And you will judge all future crises by this one.  If you can survive this, you can overcome any crisis.

What is your Leading in Crisis story?  Everyone has one; don’t belittle the importance of it.   Think about a time when the chips were down and you overcame the obstacles that seemed insurmountable at the time.   We need these stories because there will be crises – fires, stock-market crashes, cyber attacks—and how we think we handle a crisis will help us survive and lead in a crisis.

As we celebrate July 4th, my deepest thanks to the Marines who have helped me on my leadership journey and to all of the men and women who protect our country every day — who risk their lives to protect us from crises.