9 Leadership lessons learned during the Brussels bomb attacks

9 Leadership lessons learned during the Brussels bomb attacks

How one leadership decision saved 12 people’s lives.

Morning started as usual. We were going to have the 2nd day of the European business leadership board meeting  on  22 March. Checking out of a beautiful hotel, the Dominican, in  Brussels centre, I was almost on the way to take the subway to the office. A colleague from Brussels suggested that he has a car and can drive a few people to the office. I did not mind – can either take subway or car, I’m easy-going.

While we were sorting out who would go via  the underground and who will travel to the office by car, another colleague, who was going to go back to London at around 11ish that day, hence was still in her room, was  desperately trying to reach us. She had  seen in the morning news that there had been a bomb attack in the Brussels airport. It sounded surreal! Shocking! We all grabbed our smart phones and started to check the news. While reading the tragic and shocking news, we could not still realize, what had just  happened.

Despite the news, we were on the way to office anyway, so we had to sort out the logistics of who takes the car and who takes the metro, to  get there. Our leader Tony said: ”Wait! Let’s reconsider it here. I remember, when there was a bomb attack threat in this country some time ago, the government closed all the underground transport. Now there has been a real attack at the  airport. Most probably, they will close the subway sooner or later for security. Currently the subway is still functioning, but for how long? Let’s take taxi!”

Despite the fact, that in the previous day, we all got acquainted with a  new enhanced company expense policy, so, this was a situation, where you have to trust your leadership  and make a judgement call. The first leadership lesson:

1. Trust your leadership judgement

We took taxis instead of the subway to office. And when arrived at the  office, we  discovered in the news that there was another bomb attack in the center – nearby the hotel where we were staying – in the station from where we were going to take the train to the office. This got us gutted. We were one leadership decision away from being in the middle of an explosion. I cannot really describe that feeling when you feel like you are born again and thankful for your life. It puts things into different perspective.

2. Put your people first,

is the second leadership lesson learned. On the way to the office we were checking whether everyone from the Belgium offices were  safe and not been close to any explosions. One colleague was actually going to be flying out from the airport that morning – he reported to be safe and not injured. There was relief in the team and much bonding together. I was amazed later how much the local Belgium team cared for the European Leadership team to be taken care of, despite their concern about their own families as well.

Although, our leader was  chased from the London office about  the important deadlines, and presentation decks for important meetings, he said – “I will think about our people first, when they are safe, they will deliver for our customers and internal stakeholders. Definitely, I will manage to reply to stakeholders, but – our people come first.”

3. Be flexible to change your plan

Although we had a very busy board meeting agenda for that Tuesday, and Tony is a very driven, results focused and demanding leader, he asked the question – what shall we do – deliver on the agenda, stay here until  tomorrow or until the security warning decreases and then go home or figure out how to get away from here? Although there were really a lot of things on the board meeting agenda to resolve (including my Talent management session, which is important), some people suggested – it is not safe here, we can not focus on the agenda while the country is on a  4th degree security warning (highest), lets figure out how to get out of here.

4. Diversity helps to look at wider range of options

Having 12 people to  listen to  in the team from different countries, professional backgrounds, nationalities, gender, and life experiences was a big help   in reviewing all the options for the day and to decide on  the most appropriate. It was a worth while experience to hear different approaches, options, opinions and together to land a  solution for the  day.

5. Play to people’s talents and strengths, they will excel in what they are great at

In the crisis situation that we were in, naturally we started to focus and contribute in the areas we could best add value to – Operations professionals helped searched  for transport options, schedules, nearest cities; Frequent travellers – suggesting which airports/train stations are most convenient and how to get there.  Human resources – ensured we should take care of the  local Belgium team and people, not just the  European Leadership Team, Sales & Trading – keeping spirits up with some jokes and anecdotes.

6. Care for your people and they will care for you

The first thing I did while travelling in the car from the hotel to the office – was to message the  office manager and HR leader to check in on the Belgium people, whether all are safe, whether anyone was  travelling at this time from the airport. When speaking to people in the office, one colleague said – she is really worried about her daughter that is in kindergarten currently. I suggested – if she is worried about her daughter, she should do what she feels best in the current situation – to drive safely and pick up her daughter from  kindergarten. They can then go home safely and she can continue to work from home as necessary.

It was extraordinary, how the Brussels office colleagues cared about the European Leadership Team to ensure we get home safe. They first thought about the leadership team and only afterwards – about how they are going to travel home themselves.

7. Involve your team in decision making

There came a point where Tony asked: “What do you want to do – stay here until  tomorrow or figure out today how to get home?” It was not about telling – we will do this or that. But together, deciding on what is the best option in the current situation, for the team and for each and every individual. Every single person  was important – we did not leave until we figured out how Ignacio will get home to Madrid (he had to make quite a journey from Brussels to Lille to Paris to Madrid) and how to get Barbara out of the hotel and to the team (as by 10am there were no more taxi’ s available, neither any other transport).

8. Humour helps to release stress

To be honest – some people freaked out at  the situation and just said – get me out of here, I’m not staying! And that is a normal reaction to enormous stress levels. What was helpful were  some silly jokes during the conversations and while figuring out what to do and how to get home safe for everyone. It was quite a  logistical nightmare – to get people from Brussels to Spain, France, Netherlands, United Kingdom, or just to home for those that lived in Brussels, as there was no transport from Brussels available – no airplanes, no trains, no car rentals. Together, creatively we solved the logistics puzzle.

9. Have a strong team

Having a strong team helps to have good times in business and enhance strong business results, and helps to travel through  tough times successfully together. Big  respect to my colleagues who suggested – I have a car, I can drive to the centre to pick up Barbara from the hotel, I just need someone to travel with me as that area might be closed down due to high risk and recent explosions. Big respect also to the colleagues who effortlessly drove other colleagues to a  neighbour country such as the Netherlands, to the airport and to the Lille train station. And  big respect to the colleagues from the Belgium office, who first wanted to ensure that the European Leadership Team is managed and safe, and only then thought about – how will they get home.

Final thoughts:

The day started as a usual day, but it turned out so unexpected. While remaining calm and grounded during the day, emotions only kicked in for me in the evening, when I returned home. I felt exhausted from the stress, sad for the people in Belgium, angry at the situation and the people who can cold-bloodily do these kinds of things – taking away innocent lives. It kicked in for me later that I was one leadership decision away from being in the middle of the explosion. Shocking! And – grateful for my leader’s decisions, team collaboration and the care for each other that was shown that day. This really puts things into a different perspective, something, I will never forget.

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