What a flood taught me about leadership
Looking from my home office window, I could see the debris piling up. My neighbors, Mark and Debra (not actual names), were removing their furniture, sheetrock, boxes, carpet, rugs, and other damaged articles from their flooded house. My heart sank as I saw my neighbors losing the belongings they had worked hard for years to acquire. My neighbors, like thousands of others in the Baton Rouge metro area, lost not only their belongings but also their cherished memories.
The flood had ravaged my hometown of Baton Rouge just a few weeks ago, displacing residents from more than 100,000 homes (Nelson, Bauerlein, & Patel, 2016) and killing 13 (Crisp, 2016). Experts were calling this flood the worst natural disaster in the history of Baton Rouge (Riegel, 2016) . Additionally, this flood is is expected to cost the US economy upward of $15 Billion (Burris, 2016).
On the day of the flood, my house was surrounded by flood water. The water came very close to our doors but did not enter the house. We were really fortunate. We escaped the wrath my neighbors came face to face with. I was attending a leadership conference in Rhode Island when all this took place in Baton Rouge. I was barely able to get in touch with my family back home. My family had lost power, cell phone coverage and internet. After multiple delays, I was able to get back to Baton Rouge.
Baton Rouge is a thriving city. But what I noticed on my return felt like a community with a stopped heartbeat. In the next few days, water finally receded from roads and I was able to drive to work. Tears rolled down my cheek as I witnessed the devastation all around me on the way to work. Things did not look much better after I reached my office.
We, the company management, faced a very difficult situation: many employees were personally affected by the flood. We did not have enough staff available to run the business and serve our customers. At the time of this article, we have started operating our business in what we are calling “the new normal”. It will take months before we are able to work at the pre-flood pace. This flood experience has taught me a few lessons that any business leader can utilize to prepare for and lead a team in difficult situations like a disaster. I am sharing these lessons below.
Embrace the grief
The moments of the night I came back to my flooded neighborhood are etched in my memory. I remember the area being dark, eerie and quiet. I was used to a well lit entrance, chirping birds and playing kids, with a small beautiful lake alongside the path of entry. That’s not what I saw on that fateful night. The lake had grown into a monster, engulfing houses and destroying them with the brute force of nature. The streets were full of sludge and dead animals. Most of the residents had relocated to dryer areas.
A rescuer brought me close to my house. I noticed my wife and my dog standing and walking towards me and told the rescuer to stop. Standing at the pavement with flooded homes around me, I had that sinking feeling. Suffering has a way of doing that to you. I felt lost. What are we going to do tomorrow? Do we have any food left? When will I be able to go to work?
I deeply felt the shock and grief. If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, you will too. Be gentle with yourself. Experts suggest that we go through five stages of grief: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. Don’t rush the grieving process. Take time to grieve. You just need to stay with that feeling for a few moments or hours depending on the situation. When I finally arrived at work later, I noticed more suffering. My coworkers’ lives had been turned upside down.
Prioritize the tasks, and take care of must-dos
Our management team was used to accomplishing a lot in a day. We took pride in being productive and efficient, finishing project milestones and support tickets. This day was going to be different. I remembered an old exercise where a coach asked me to imagine that I’m going to die soon and then prioritize my life accordingly. This day felt like that.
Here is the lesson: don’t kid yourself into thinking you can do it all. That is what amateurs do; you are a professional. A leader working with a less than optimal team is like a craftsman working with less than optimal tools. The craftsman knows what need to be done today and what can wait. Be like that craftsman!
Think hard about what needs to be done now. Move non urgent tasks out of the way. Prioritize what needs to be done to deal with the disaster response, above everything else. Click here to get a free checklist to help you get started.
The regular tasks at work are going to take way longer; nobody will explicitly tell you this, I will. Plan accordingly. Even the people physically on site are emotionally hurt and tired. When people are emotionally hurt, they will not perform at their peak capacity. They need your support and understanding.
Find leaders who can lead the team in your absence
I have made it a point to develop other leaders on my team who can take over if I am not available for any reason whatsoever. When I was unable to work during the early days of the flood, a few of my direct reports assumed leadership. They created a small team to prioritize the work, and collaborated with others outside my team. I believe that great leaders create other leaders on their team; good leaders create followers.
If you already have potential leaders on your team, let them take the lead during disaster situations. Empower them to make critical and urgent decisions. During days of disaster, if you are unable to get to work, they will step up and get the work done.
Master the inner game of mental balance. Keep perspective.
It seems easy to read after the fact but believe me when you are in the middle of a crisis, this might be the most difficult advice to act on. It is tempting to get completely distracted and conjured by the pains but you also need to think of a future when the team will recover. We thanked our team members for stepping up and reminded them that this difficult situation will be over, and we will recover.
Many community leaders successfully communicated the vision of a recovered strong Baton Rouge. The local business magazine cited the recovery in New Orleans and Nashville, as examples to emulate (Rolfe Jr., 2016). It might seem like the end of your world; it is not. I like to think of what a mentor suggested a long time ago – “how will you think of this event three years from now?”
Have a sense of humor
Since moving to Louisiana a few years ago, my wife and I have made amazing friends here. The Louisianians have a very resilient attitude towards natural disasters. It might be because they have experienced Hurricanes and other natural disasters; Katrina and Gustav come to mind. Our friends prepare for natural disasters, and are ready to lend a hand. I still remember receiving a welcome gift from a colleague, soon after arriving to Baton Rouge — a complete survival kit with water, non perishable food, a flashlight and other essential items.
In the face of disasters, Louisianians are like a family that sticks together and laughs together. A sense of humor lightens the mood. Keep that humor alive; it will help your team weather the storm and become even more close knit.
Be grateful for what you still have
When I visited Kim (pseudonym), a neighbor with three feet of water inside her house, and asked “how are things inside”, she came out with a 30 year old family picture hanged on a dry wall. She told me how she really likes the picture, and then shared stories about her kids and grand kids. She expressed gratitude for everyone in the neighborhood being alive. That was a moment I remember, because of her attitude of gratitude.
There’s research to prove that expressing gratitude alters one’s state of mind and increases happiness (Simon, 2011). Remember to look for what is good in a situation however difficult the situation. Finding something good and expressing gratitude will make you feel better and you will find a little calm inside you while you deal with a storm outside.
A long time ago, a friend told me what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; he was helping me through a challenging situation in my life. The last few months have been challenging for us in Louisiana, and the challenges have been unable to kill our spirit. We will come out stronger on the other side of this storm.
Burris, A. (2016, September 9). Louisiana flooding projected to cost US economy upward of $15B. Retrieved from Business Report: https://www.businessreport.com/business/louisiana-flooding-projected-cost-us-economy-upward-15b
Crisp, E. (2016, September 13). Gov. John Bel Edwards names flood recovery task force. Retrieved from The Advocate: http://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/politics/article_68ef699c-79f4-11e6-b68c-5f11852f326e.html
Nelson, C. M., Bauerlein, V., & Patel, Y. (2016, August 19). After Louisiana Flooding, 40,000 Homes Damaged and 4,000 People. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/after-louisiana-flooding-40-000-homes-damaged-and-4-000-people-still-in-shelters-1471644500
Riegel, S. (2016, August 30). Capital Region businesses grapple with the impact of Baton Rouge’s worst natural disaster ever. Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, pp. 16-17. Retrieved from Business Report.
Rolfe Jr., M. (2016, August 30). We will come back strong. Business Report, p. 6.
Simon, H. B. (2011, November). Giving thanks can make you happier. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publications: http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier
( This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on Sept-26-2016.)