I vividly remember my first trip to Thailand. It coincided with the boxing day tsunami that killed 280 000 people in 2004. Walking through the empty streets the day before a 21 lock-down in South Africa, the Covid-19 pandemic reminds me of this now far-away experience. I see panic all around me, empty streets and closed down shops. No-one knows the answers or what the future holds. It takes a strong leader to navigate the way. Here’s a rough guide to leading through a crisis based on lessons from my Thailand experience.
A trip down memory lane
Excited to go on my first international holiday with friends I boarded a flight to Thailand on Christmas day in 2004. I arrived late at night and immediately went to bed in my Bangkok hotel room. I’m woken up after midnight with hundreds of text messages from friends and family back in South Africa asking if I’m OK. I’m annoyed. Of course I’m OK! I’m about to fly out to Phuket, the proverbial paradise on earth, with my best friends whom I haven’t seen in years!
I’m blissfully unaware of the tragedy that has already struck and that my itinerary follows roughly the same contours of the tsunami’s path. The aftershocks I feel while lying in my hotel bed doesn’t concern me as I have no expectation as to what normal should be in this faraway country. I’ve seen and read enough to think that this is normal.
When I wake up the next morning with a day to kill before meeting up with my friends in Phuket, I switch on the television to immerse myself in Thai culture before I head down to breakfast. The first channel is a news channel. Not really a news fan and not understanding a word of what is being said, I flick to the next channel, searching for some entertainment. Maybe a movie or a series to give me more insight into the culture. But the next channel is also reporting on the same event, so is the next, and the next and the next. Finally, I switch off the TV and head down for breakfast, still unaware of the disaster that happened a few kilometres away, thinking how bad Thai television is.
While experimenting with the different tastes and textures offered for breakfast my phone rings. It’s my friend. I immediately start blabbing about the food on my plate but she doesn’t sound as excited as I am. She tells me about the tsunami that hit and I finally understand the hundreds of text messages on my phone. I feel guilty for not responding more promptly. She’s panicking and they want to cancel the trip. She suggests I fly to Australia or New Zealand where we can still have a beach holiday, but in a safer place.
Not fully realizing the impact of the tsunami, as I haven’t viewed it from the outside as the rest of the world, I refuse. I’m not giving up my holiday just because of a tsunami that already hit. I’m here. It happened. I’m fine. It’s over.
I finally convince them to join me in Bangkok where we will decide on our next destination seeing that our entire trip has been wiped out.
Leadership lessons from the boxing day tsunami
We planned a luxury beach holiday scuba-diving the reefs of the south of Thailand. Instead, we ended up renting a mini-van complete with pink curtains and golden decorations inside and drove up to the north. As opposed to flying fast, we drive slowly, while enjoying the landscapes and stopping to enjoy local food. We pull faces as the unusual tastes and textures hit our palates. Then we learn a few Thai words on our way north in our rented mini-van trying to make the best of this long and uncomfortable ride.
We planned drinking cocktails and watching fireworks on the beach for New Year’s eve. Then we ended up hiking through the mountains (without hiking gear). We planned a serviced stay in a luxury villa and ended up sleeping on the floor in a mountainside tribe’s village with a cold shower and eating the chicken we just saw running around with the pigs and the other animals. No massages. No cocktails. Also, no music. No cellphones. No fireworks. Just a few friends in a strange country overlooking the most extraordinary sunset standing on a ruggedly build patio. We only had each other.
It was the best New Year’s ever.
It was also probably the most extreme opposite experience than we planned and looking at all my travel experiences, the most authentic, the most memorable and the most enjoyable.
You see, we planned our trip based on catalogue photos’ and western mindsets. We wanted to travel thousands of kilometres to experience a western fairy tale of azure waters and white beaches, while saying we experienced a different culture. If our trip wasn’t cancelled, we would have had a beautiful, but very superficial holiday experiencing very little of the Thai culture. We would have done what we did at home, probably ate what we ate at home, and saw what the media made us believe is the culture of Thailand. When our itinerary was wiped out, however, we were given the opportunity to experience the real Thailand. We had a secret door open to us to view the culture in it’s most beautiful and authentic way.
We saw the beauty as offered on the brochures. Also, we saw the poverty, the dirt, and the simple lifestyle of the average person in Thailand. We saw and smelled the dogs and other live (and dead) animals at the local market. We bought crisps for dinner unable to stomach the meat.
Turns out the average Thai person doesn’t lie on a beach drinking cocktails all day getting massages! They eat dogs and insects and nearly raw seafood and sleep on mats on the floor. The reality wasn’t as rose-coloured as the brochures painted, but much more satiating on a soul level.
This experience has taught me a lot about leading in a crisis, encountering turbulent situations and how to navigate when you’re in the eye of the storm.
1. Keep calm and stick to the plan (sort of)
Probably the most important characteristic of a change leader is their ability to keep calm in the face of adversity and to understand the nuances of leading in a crisis. People are going to panic when a global pandemic is looming outside the door. That’s to be expected. You as a leader might even panic a little. Or maybe a lot.
Panic, however, closes down all your senses while your amygdala is given full control to make decisions. Emotional decisions, however, is usually not very good or sensible long term decisions. You put a hold on recruitment even though recruiting that innovation specialist is exactly what will get you through this crisis. Then you send everyone home and lock yourself in your office to strategize while you should be more visible and communicate more. You react out of fear rather than leading in a crisis and responding from a place of calm and with consideration.
The best gift you can give your employees and clients when leading in a crisis is to remain calm and focus on your goal.
It’s time to get to the truth. Did you choose Thailand because you wanted to experience the culture and connect with your friends; or did you go there for a beach holiday that you can have in your own country (or anywhere else)?
Leading in a crisis is an excellent time to re-evaluate your intentions and your vision. What is your goal and why? Why do you do what you do? What’s your true north? Are you after the shiny object? Or the diamond in the rough?
If your goal is making money, why do want to make money? What will you do with all that money? When you cut out the middleman (aka money) and focus on what you actually want, suddenly there are possibilities and options that become available to you that you didn’t have before.
It’s not about the money. And it’s not even about the thing that money buys. It’s about the feeling of having the thing that money buys. You want the freedom that money brings or the power and control that comes with it.
So what do you really want? What do you really, really, really want?
2. Let go of the how
When you let go of the details when leading in a crisis, it’s possible to enjoy the ride. You don’t get distraught each time things doesn’t plan out the way you wanted, and open yourself to the joy of discovering the unexpected.
Like a surfer riding a wave, you plan to stay afloat, not exactly how or when you will navigate as you would in a car following the straight line of a road. In nature, there are no straight lines. When leading change you need to learn to ride the wave. Let go of the how and focus on responding to the changes rather than trying to control it.
When our Thailand itinerary was wiped out we had to let go of our expectations and our plans. What guided us was this true north. We didn’t choose Thailand because we wanted to see Phuket. Sure, we wanted that. But what we really wanted was to strengthen and nurture our friendships while living on different continents.
And nothing strengthens (or test) a relationship as much as dealing with a crisis. When things go well it’s easy to be nice. It’s when the going gets tough that your true character shows.
Whether in a personal relationship or a business relationship, if you’re focused on the details of how, chances are you are going to be disappointed and probably be a bad leader. Chances are also you will be saying no to something you really want because it didn’t come in the packaging you expected. We got a hillside trekking experience when we planned an island experience. We could have said no thank you, this is not what we planned. Instead, we embraced what we had and discovered something we never expected to see. Something far more memorable and special than what we could possibly have planned.
If you’re focused on the why you look past the short term difficulties. You can then focus on finding a mutually beneficial solution that will help everyone reach their true north goal. Let go of your detailed plans. Rather, keep your eyes on your true north and just keep correcting, like a GPS would keep correcting you towards your destination.
3. Communicate and collaborate
When people panic they tend to think up worst-case scenarios and before you know it the grapevine of gossip turns into a forest. Even though you don’t know the answers (no-one does), it is more important than ever to be transparent. Communicate and include people in decision making. When people don’t know the answers, they’re going to try and find answers. If you are not the one to guide that process, they’re possibly going to go into a panic and create even more fear with made-up answers of their own.
If you don’t provide the answers, people will make up their own.
You might be the boss and leading in a crisis, but you’re not the only person being impacted by the pandemic. You don’t know what’s best for everyone. Rather ask. Include people in the decisions you make. Don’t try to do it alone. They will respect you for including them and listening to their fears.
Let’s face it. You’re not in control.
When we got together in Bangkok we spent a day planning an alternative. We each were given a responsibility to look at alternatives as there simply wasn’t enough time to plan the perfect holiday. We had to check-out the next day. One person was responsible for looking at transport options, another at the accommodation and things to do in the north while the other to look at alternatives in the east or close neighbouring countries. After one day we didn’t have an entire holiday re-planned, but we did have our next destination pinned down and enough time to figure out the next leg later.
If only one person was responsible for everything, we would have never ended up having a plan (and bookings) by the end of the day. It’s not a time to try to control all the decisions within your organization. It is time to include people and find mutual solutions for immediate problems. Don’t wait for the company to declare bankruptcy. Involve each employee now and ask them to help find solutions.
There’s no shame in not knowing. In fact, it makes you a more vulnerable and accessible (and inspiring) leader.
A rough guide to leading change through turbulent times
Whether you planned for change or not, it’s happening. Right now. No-one knows the impact that this pandemic is going to have in the longterm, but we do know that there is going to be an immense impact on the economy and society as a whole. It’s not possible to make detailed plans to get you through this, but you can make a rough plan and take the next step. And then the next. And then the next. That’s the plan when you’re leading in a crisis.
And finally, you’ll end up exactly where you want to be. Just keep calm and take one step at a time.