Leadership lessons from Nepal earthquake

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.

A couple of months ago 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. Although the area was close to the epicentre we were fortunate to be walking in a place where the valley widened out and all 20 of us were unharmed away from the danger of rock falls or landsides. Watching avalanches and boulders being flung off the dramatic Himalaya while feeling the ground wave under our feet was an experience that literally shakes you to your core. We were then stuck for 8 days until a helicopter came to take us back to Kathmandu; a time which provided it’s own challenges in terms of not knowing how our families were feeling and uncertainty over how or when we would be rescued.

I felt truly blessed for many reasons, and one of those reasons was the incredible lessons that the earthquake experience provided. A particular interest of mine in to do with leadership and profound systems change. We were provided with a shining example of leadership in the form of a Tsum local and mountain guide, Dhawa.

Dhawa owns the guesthouse in the tiny village we ended up in after the earthquake was over. He happened to be 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 own chances of survival by getting out of there as quickly as possible in order to be there for his family and taking more personal risk to help his clients. His sense of duty and attitude of service won out.

After that ordeal he arrives at his guesthouse and finds the 20 of us waiting there, having not yet worked out what we were going to do with ourselves. The village we were aiming to stay in that night had been completely destroyed. Without hesitation he began making preparations for temporary shelter under a large tarp in the horse paddock and mattresses and blankets were hauled out. No one knew if the buildings were stable and aftershocks kept coming. We were fed from the tiny kitchen despite the limited stocks in the pantry with no guarantee of replenishment in the near future.

His impact on the group was immediate and palpable. As he started speaking to us we circled around. He cut through the stress and confusion with a welcome groundedness, calm and presence.

As the initial drama of the earthquake event itself subsided, a different kind of stress emerged. Uncertainty and lack of control. It took two days to find a phone that we could use to make international phone calls, so no one knew where we were for a while. We also could not receive consistent communication from the outside world so it was difficult getting a clear picture of the situation: could we walk down, if not, how would we get helicopters here, what were the embassies doing, what was the situation in Kathmandu even if we could get back by helicopter, would embassies pick up people from other countries (there were 9 different countries represented in our group alone), etc. Eventually we were picked up by US Embassy helicopters 8 days after the earthquake although we didn’t know that was happening until the day.

What I observed in myself, in the group and through Dhawa’s example drew connections for me between leadership and Slow principles. Here were some of the insights related to a handful of Slow principles.

‘Be present’ principle

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 you can do is not only a waste of mental effort but also 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 (and in that situation there was not a whole lot in our control!).

Mindfulness is an extremely valuable skill too because every choice you make matters, including the words you choose to use and what you chose to put voice too. 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 at all constructive and would impact people who were not coping so well. I knew we’d be ok so I had to choose to not add to any negativity. As I reflected on these little daily choices the term ‘micro-moments of leadership’ came to mind.

Slow encourages us to find pleasure in the small things. 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.

‘Connect to self’ principle

Dhawa displayed a strong sense of purpose, which related to an attitude of service. I think this helped him remain focussed on what needed to be done and helped prevent overwhelm from all of us wanting things from him for 8 days straight! Everyone else also seemed to want a defined role. Whether that was taking care of the dishes, or in my case carrying water, having something meaningful to do was incredibly satisfying.

It was very clear to me that there was a distinct choice to either contract, find a dark corner to hide in, or show up and do my best. I feel this is probably applicable to all stressful and chaotic situations. I feels to me that this requires a high level of self-awareness, centredness and is aided by a connection to purpose.

‘Connect to other’ principle

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. He did this quite naturally and it really helped people not get too serious.

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 was how anxious people 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.

This experience reminded me about the importance of personal cultivation for leaders and changemakers. 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. 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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