Crisis and Leadership: A personal story

Crisis and Leadership: A personal story

True crisis situations are fabulous at cutting away the cloud of things that just don’t matter. Like a crucible, things are boiled down to essentials.

In 2015, I followed my intuition to Nepal. Our group was in the remote and sacred Tsum Valley near the border of Tibet when the earthquake hit on April 25. It was one of those life experiences where you know the significance is going to ripple throughout the rest of your life. For me this was because I understood that the world was going to go through a series of shocks and crises in the near future and I had been gifted with an incredible opportunity to get a training run. Now, in 2020, the world is in a global pandemic not long after here in Australia our devastating and unprecedented bushfire season just finished.

The group I was in had completed our week-long trek to the top of the valley. As we began to commence our descent back down the valley, we heard a roar. The earth began breaking apart, sound waves ricocheting along the side of the steep valley; the ground undulated and stones of nearby buildings began to shake loose until the walls collapsed. I looked up and saw avalanches tumbling down the flanks of the sharp peaks. Huge boulders were flung into the air. We were not in a building thankfully, so there was not anything to do except gather together in the centre of the valley and wait an hour or so until we could move on, recalibrating ourselves to the visceral realization that the ground under our feet was not to be taken for granted ever again.

A second quake came as we were nearing a nunnery. It was a cold, windy day and light drizzle floated down on us as we sat huddled outside in a field together with the nuns and the earth shook again. Some of the nuns began a hypnotic chant which enhanced the gravity of what just happened.

Huddling with the nuns

Eventually we walked to the next village, a tiny huddle of nine houses bordering the river floodplain in front of Milarepa’s cave. There we found out that the village further along, where we were meant to stay that night, was completely destroyed. So we waited in this tiny village, not knowing how to proceed. Dhawa Tsumba, a local who is a mountain guide and owner of the guesthouse where we waited, arrived to find the 20 of us on his doorstep.

He had been walking up the valley with a couple of clients towards this village when the quake happened in a bad part of the trail. Dhawa literally saved their lives by pulling one of them out of the way of falling rocks and keeping them both moving to safer ground. He described to me later that in the moment he thought of his own family and felt a conflict between trying to maximise his chances of survival by getting out of there as quickly as possible in order to be there for his family by getting and taking more personal risk to help his clients. His sense of duty and attitude of service won out.

Dhawa and I in Tsum

Without hesitation Dhawa began making preparations for a temporary shelter consisting of a large tarp in the horse paddock with spare mattresses and blankets hauled out from the guesthouse. As we gathered outside the shelter, his impact on the group was immediate and unmistakeable. He started speaking to us as we circled around. Dhawa cut through the stress and confusion with a welcome groundedness, calm and presence. His generosity also extended to feeding us from the tiny kitchen despite the limited stocks in the pantry and no guarantee of replenishment in the near future.

As the initial drama of the earthquake subsided a different kind of stress emerged from the post-disaster uncertainty and helplessness to change the situation. We were concerned about what our families were experiencing but it took two days before we could make international phone calls. It was difficult getting a clear picture of the situation. Could we walk down? What was the situation in Kathmandu? Could helicopters get here? Would embassies pick up people from other countries? It became clear that the trail had been destroyed and to attempt to walk back would be too dangerous and quite likely impossible.

In the days following the earthquake we tried to busy ourselves helping the locals by re-building stone walls and doing whatever we could around the guesthouse overflowing with stranded tourists. A group of us started making plans to raise relief funds, realising that the best way we could help would be through our communities and networks back home. After eight days the US Embassy sent helicopters, which took us back to Kathmandu, although we didn’t know that was happening until the day. 

Some of the destruction

What I observed in myself, in the group and through Dhawa’s example formed a set of lessons about leadership in times of crisis. I knew these lessons were significant for what the world would later come to face. This was cemented in me upon discovering, while waiting in those limbo days post-quake, that the Tsum valley had been declared by Guru Rinpoche to be a hidden ‘Beyul’, only to be open to the outside world to assist those walking the dharma path as the world goes through a series of shocks and crises. Tsum had only been open to tourism since 2008.

Here are some of the insights. 

Learnings

Crisis situations are like a crucible, boiling things down to essentials. The morning after the earthquake a dawning realization overcame me. My head spun as everything seemed to come together. The apparent reasons for my going on this journey were revealed to be superficial rationalizations; while the deeper questions of “what I am to bring forth into this world” and “how do I need to transform in order to do so?” were being answered with dramatic clarity.

I had a sense that part of my life’s work was to prepare people, especially community leaders, for times of chaos as waves of disruption increasingly occur. The earthquake served as a mirror, a microcosm, a glimpse of what this might look like. Immediately after the earthquake, once it was confirmed that shelter and water needs could be met, I felt comfortable that we would be ok and I could move into observing, learning alongside and trying to help. Perhaps because of the intensity of the experience, it felt like illusory patterns of thought were stripped back to a raw, essentialized state.

I had thought I would learn about feminine leadership on the trek but it turned out I would learn about leadership in times of crises and chaos. Some of the lessons I gained from observing what happened after the earthquake are:

  • The importance of remaining in the present is really highlighted in a crisis situation. Getting swept up by worrying about future when there is nothing to do is not only a waste of mental effort but can have detrimental impact on the group. It seemed that those who were the most distressed were the ones trapped in thoughts about things out of their control. Being in the present was a clear choice and oddly I felt more relaxed than before the earthquake when I felt tension out of the perception of idling away time and wanting to be in action. One of the most delightful moments was waking up and seeing Dhawa planting flower seeds. The situation had not taken away his appreciation of the small things.
  • Mindfulness is important because every choice matters, including the words chosen and what is given voice to. Sometimes I noticed the urge to join in expressing worries about the uncertainty over what was happening to get us out, but knew it would not be constructive and would impact people who were not coping well. I knew we would be ok, so I had to choose to not add to any negativity.
  • Dhawa displayed a strong sense of purpose, related to an attitude of service. This helped him remain focussed on what needed to be done and helped prevent overwhelm from all of us, as well as several other stuck tourists and locals, asking questions and seeking his time for eight days straight. Everyone also seemed to want a defined role. Whether that was taking care of the dishes, or in my case carrying water up from the river, having something meaningful to do was satisfying and somehow stabilizing.
  • It was very clear to me that there was a distinct choice to either contract out of fear, shut down and find a dark corner to hide, or show up and do my best. I feel this is probably applicable to all stressful and chaotic situations. This requires a high level of self-awareness, centredness and is empowered by having something meaningful to do.
  • The importance of humour was obvious. Dhawa told me that in his mountain guide training they encouraged guides to make jokes as a way of easing tension.
  • Certainly in this situation it took a great deal of awareness of group dynamics to be able to respond to the group’s needs. I noticed how anxious people were about lacking information. Every time someone came back from a phone call all eyes and ears were on them, awaiting any news. This could have been remedied by having regular group information meetings; however this structure did not exist and the anxiety continued.

These testing times deepen our connection with each other. Despite the strong adherence to work roles on the part of the Nepalese and us still being treated as guests, we were bonded together in a new way. We were all in it together. Many people became using the word ‘family’ to describe those staying at the guesthouse, seeing it as their home.

This experience also reminded me about the importance of personal cultivation for leaders. Mindfulness and calm are habits that can be developed and focus and presence can be trained. A sense of purpose comes through stillness, reflection and inquiry. Intent matters; I went to Nepal with the intent of exploring how I needed to transform in order to bring forth whatever it is I am meant to bring forth in this lifetime. Lessons were gifted to me in a more deep and profound way than I could have imagined. It really did drive home that the daily choices we make shape us into our future selves. 

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