Leading in a Crisis:
Five Lessons from the Almeda Fire

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Author:

Well, I thought I’d come to terms with living life out of control. Crises surround us: a pandemic, a tanked economy, lawless politics. I had accepted having power over basically nothing beyond doing the laundry and making sure we loaded the dishwasher on time. Seated in my home office for another shelter in place day, I learned how to overcome isolation. Emails whizzed back and forth. Projects got done, despite people often wondering what day it was and disappearing at random intervals. Nevertheless, I felt proud to have settled into a reasonable rhythm in an environment where nothing was normal.

Then came the Almeda fire.

Tuesday morning, September 8th, hot, howling 40 mph winds woke me up, bombarding our house with broken branches and pine needles. I groaned and planned for a long drag of a day spent indoors with no garden breaks. If only . . . Just after noon, during yet another Zoom call, one of the participants received a text. A large, raging grassfire had flared up on the other side of town, a mere 2-1/2 miles away from my house.

Over the next 72 hours my husband and I waited nervously for news and direction. Finally, we learned that while we had escaped the fire’s destruction, the residents of the neighboring Oregon towns of Talent and Phoenix lost over 2800 homes and businesses. The aerial photos looked like the area had been hit by WWII cluster bombs.

Lessons from the fire:

When adversity strikes, I try to learn from it. Living through the Almeda fire served as an unexpected reminder of what leaders must do in the event of a crisis, whether it is a natural disaster or one in business.  Here are five things I’ve learned along the way about leading others through crises.

1. Numb is okay.

In the face of untold destruction, you’d think you’d know how to react. Seeing sky high black plumes, closed highways and the charred remains of favorite restaurants, shops and people’s homes caused a rush of emotions.

Residents described simultaneous feelings of shock, fear, sadness, vulnerability, confusion, anger, grief, despair and helplessness. There were so many competing reactions that they seemed to cancel each other out, leaving people numb, not knowing how to feel.

That’s okay, strange as that might sound. When a crisis hits, all you really know is that you are not in control, starting with your emotions. When you are a leader in a crisis, your job is to push through the emotional fog without judgment of your confusion about a complicated situation. Numbness does not mean lack of fear but, rather, is a healthy defensive reaction to the scariness of a situation and its many risks.

Accept numb feelings as normal and temporary. They will resolve themselves into clearer perspectives as you learn more about your situation.

2. Crises arrive uninvited and cannot be ignored.

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Crises of any kind tend to appear unannounced and when you least expect them. The Almeda Fire arrived on a cloudless late summer day. Other than high winds, there was nothing to indicate imminent danger. In fact, the cause of the fire is still unknown and remains under criminal investigation.

You may be responsible for causing the crisis you face. In the case of a natural disaster, it’s unlikely, although you might take a closer look at what you could be doing about global warming. If you are a leader of a business in crisis, you may well have contributed to it by not paying attentions such critical issues as:

  • A small tenacious competitor that has been growing fast and coming after your market share.
  • The need to diversify your customer base instead of relying on one major client until it hired a new CEO who  wants to fire you.
  • Leaving an important product group in the hands of a bullying manager in response to which the team’s top talent has been quitting in protest.

Regardless of your role, the crisis will arrive on its schedule rather than yours and once it hits, you have lost control. Then you have to figure out what you missed, or ignored, and create a recovery plan.

3. Focus on taking small smart steps:

When a crisis arrives, over-achievement takes a holiday. Recovery occurs in small smart steps. The chaos of the event and universal reactivity will prevent large leaps toward anything new. Every step counts and points in the direction of the next one.

In the case of a natural disaster, the first step targets safety. When the Almeda Fire started, the fire department immediately issued a community wide directive telling us whether we needed to leave our homes or stay put to keep the streets clear for first responders. The directive gave us a decision-making framework to know whether to grab our wallets and go, or stay and organize go bags and boxes while we waited for further instruction. Then we could focus on checking on our friends and relatives.

During a crisis, leadership has to step up and direct behavior. It’s not a time for democracy. Many leaders with whom I’ve worked worry about command and control behaviors. In usual times, it’s a legitimate concern because they disempower and demotivate people.

In a crisis, time is of the essence and the organization needs the leader’s expertise and experience to guide it through the chaos and restore order.

4. Smart steps must take into account human emotions.

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Photo credit: Behrooz Emam

The Almeda Fire was not my first natural disaster. My first experience occurred several years earlier, giving me a cram course on leading others through a crisis. Not only did I have to figure out smart steps, I had to pay close attention to what people felt and needed. While that is always important to leadership, it is even more so in a crisis. Crises land emotionally, not intellectually.

One quiet morning at Amazon. On February 28, 2001, the Nisqually earthquake, registering a magnitude of 6.8, struck Seattle. At the time, I was sitting on the tenth floor of the Amazon headquarters building. While the land under the building rocked and roared, one thousand panicked tech workers streamed down twelve flights of stairs in search of safety.  At the bottom, they were greeted by a front driveway covered with large chunks of rubble.

As Amazon’s real estate executive, I was in charge. Standing in the driveway, I looked down at the rubble, then up to where the top of the building should have been. It was now sitting in pieces at my feet. As I studied the extent of the damage and the faces of the frightened workers around me, I had no time to feel my own feelings. Numb was the word. I had to act.

The first step: Secure the site. Clearly, the first step was safety. We needed to close the building and send the workforce home to check on their families and friends. As the building was our headquarters, I went in search of our CEO for his official blessing. I found him standing in the upper parking lot on the other side of the building. He was swaying slightly back and forth and grinning at me.

“Did you have to give me job satisfaction today?” I asked, grinning back, mainly to break my own growing tension. He exploded into one of his loud signature laughs. Then, in front of the hundreds of employees staring up from the parking lot below, he gave me a bone crushing hug. As he was not a particularly demonstrative person, his gesture told me, and probably the onlookers, that he was as anxious as everyone else. We had a dangerous situation on our hands.

I also realized he needed something to do right away to quell his anxiety. I asked him to help me find the fire chief to ask for marching orders. We found the chief who directed us to enter the building in small groups to collect wallets and keys. The CEO, having recovered his physical composure, led the first forays.

The second step: Secure the people and machines. As a second step, we had to check on the rest of the workforce in our downtown buildings and the “store,” i.e., the computer servers that ran Amazon’s website.  Without them, there was no business. Fortunately, my awesome team was way ahead of me. They had already sprinted downtown and quickly confirmed that every person and machine was safe.

The third step: Secure the feelings. I would have missed the third and most critical step had it not been for my sharp executive assistant who kept her finger on the people’s pulse. Two days after the quake hit, the fire department gave us permission to re-enter the headquarters building. Still operating in numb mode, I focused on making sure the space was hazard free for the returning workers. Then my assistant grabbed my arm.

“We’re just going to tell them to go back to their desks? Are you kidding me? Most people here didn’t grow up in Southern California like you! This is their first earthquake and they’re terrified! We have to do something to help them.”

She suggested we open the building with an optional informational meeting in our large cafeteria to explain how earthquakes work, how we would restore the building and answer questions. I nodded, despite wondering whether anyone in that driven bunch would attend an extracurricular event. The next morning, they poured into the cafeteria, filling out every square inch of space and remained for the full one-hour meeting. Afterwards, they returned to their desks, many of them thanking us on the way out.

Feelings rule motivation and if you tap into them, your chances of inspiring your followers to do what is needed to recover from a crisis will greatly improve.

5. Look to the future:

The past is past, as the damage is done, and the present is miserable because of the chaos the past created. That includes the painful process of deconstructing it to determine what happened and how to prevent its recurrence. The future holds the possibilities. Therein lies hope.

The Almeda firefighters and law enforcement officials must discover what caused the fire and why so many buildings perished while others did not. What they learn will inform how best to rebuild.

Amazon, for all its power cannot prevent an earthquake, but it could (and did) rebuild the top of the headquarters building. Of broader significance, they also adopted a business continuity plan that included data center redundancy. For the scrappy, adolescent company that eschewed systems and rules, that was an important step towards business maturity.

Whether it’s rebuilding a building, community or organization, strong, single-minded motivation is required to restore what matters and create changes that will improve life. Focusing on the future provides essential fuel. It stretches the imagination and renews the spirit. In Talent and Phoenix, as the pain ebbs, funding arrives and the rubble starts to disappear, a compelling vision of the future will inspire residents as they work to rebuild their community and build it better.

The role of leaders is to envision the future for their communities and organizations, then strive to see it realized.

Crisis and the bigger picture

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I don’t know how or when we will exit the crises of the pandemic, torrid politics or abrupt economic decline. I do see green shoots of hope as we struggle through enormous challenges. Voters are now planning strategies to make sure their votes count. Formerly silent people are finding their voices. Technology connects diverse people around the world spreading ideas, support and reality checks.

 

I believe in the future, resilience and the strength of the human character. Crisis is opportunity. We will prevail and become better so long as we dig deep, find our courage and believe that we can.

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