Breath in and Breath Out: Leadership in a Time of Crisis

Breath in and Breath Out: Leadership in a Time of Crisis

This week in Thailand was spectacular. Sand, sun, sunsets, food, drinks, laughter, friendships and quiet relaxation.
During our trip there was a serious event that also stirred some unresolved feelings and memories that required time to process. Kate and I had just arrived at the pool, I stopped to fill up the water bottles and she headed over to find our just right spot on the beachfront. All of a sudden I heard her call my name and saw a commotion by the corner of the pool. When I arrived Kate was over top of a 3-year-old boy doing chest compressions while another man was breathing into his mouth and another stranger was holding his head. This little boy had been in the water for 2 minutes before his dad pulled him out and onto the pool deck. The scene was complete chaos and hysteria.
Kate took the lead and kept doing the chest compressions, the stranger holding the boys head was a doctor from Australia and the man breathing into the boy’s mouth was his father. This scene went on for about 20 minutes. Kate doing chest compressions, Andrew the Australian doctor asking for oxygen and trying to find the right help and the dad trying to breath life into the boy. I tried to calm the mom, get the hotel staff to find oxygen and get what the parents needed to go to hospital. My role was very insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Andrew’s daughters Matlida and Jemmima were also there watching their dad, Kate and the boy’s father try and save this little boy. If it sounds dramatic it was. Finally, the ambulance arrived and although skeptical of the lack of sophistication Kate stopped compressions and an ambulance attendant took over, a faint pulse was present and Andrew went in the ambulance with the little boy and his dad to the hospital. Andrew was concerned about his daughters being left alone so Kate and I took Matilda and Jemmima and cared for them for the rest of the day until their mom returned from shopping.
What does all this have to do with leadership?
Kate and I had many conversations about the events that unfolded at the pool that morning. I was of course worried about her and it really made me think about leaders resilience and how various crises impact their emotional and mental health. Kate of course needed time and space to process the event and the huge part she played in saving this child’s life. If it were not for her the little boy would have died. That is a lot to take in and a LOT to process.
What we discussed is the need for leaders to stay calm and composed in times of crisis…EVERYONE is looking to the leader to manage and control the crisis. Leaders do not have to be the authority in charge: they may be the first on scene, the one with the most experience, the one who has the skills to manage the crisis. In this case it was Kate. It can be anyone at anytime, but if the leader is coming unglued and emotional then everyone around him or her will too. Leaders need confidence in their leadership, control and command of the situation.
But what happens to the leader after the crisis? Who looks after them? How do they process their emotions? How to they reconcile what they have just gone through?
In these moments of crisis the leader often takes on the emotions of others: parents, children, staff and even at times the community. They are judged minute by minute by what they say and what they do. Moments of crisis define leaders as good or bad, cold or caring, competent or incompetent.
As a leader over the course of time you will have to manage many crisis. Some will be very serious or tragic, some will be minor, some will be traumatic, some will be personal and some will be in secret. As a school leader I have dealt with many many crisis over my 11-year career as an administrator. The events of week have given me time to reflect on just how the accumulation of these experiences has impacted my emotional health. In the daily business and demands of the job when do leaders have time to process their emotions? Often leaders move from one crisis to another and have no time, space or opportunity to deal with the feelings that these situations bring. What ends up happening is that you go on autopilot and set those emotions aside until a later time. Unfortunately later may never come and you find yourself never taking the time to process. You end up with many layers of emotion that have never been resolved. At least that is what happened to me.
Being away from the constant crisis has allowed me to let down my guard and to process some of these emotions in a healthier way. Bit by bit, layer by layer I am working to deal with some of these unresolved feelings.
Perceiving and managing emotions is an important leadership skill. It is put to the test in times of crisis for leaders time and time again. After the crisis has past it is important for leaders to take the time to reflect and check in with their emotions as well.
If you read this blog please take some time to ask someone you know in a leadership role how they are doing? Just check in. Chances are they will tell you they are fine but you may never know how much your simple gesture will mean in that moment in time.
Epilogue: The little boy was put into a medical coma. He has a serious lung infection caused by all of the water he ingested and swelling in the brain. He was transported to Bangkok with his family and things look hopeful. Kate and I were able to spend a great deal of time with Andrew, Amanda, Charlotte, Jemmima and Matilda this trip getting to know them, sharing stories and creating a new friendship. Who knows maybe our paths will cross again one day.


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