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How do we lead and help people when the world breaks?

On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi and the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plants experienced a severe earthquake, followed by a tsunami. The New York Times reported on March 26th: “In the country that gave the world the word tsunami, the Japanese nuclear establishment largely disregarded the potentially destructive force of the walls of water. The word did not even appear in government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants—including the Fukushima Daiichi facility that firefighters are still struggling to get under control—began dotting the Japanese coastline.”

The lack of attention may help explain how, on an island nation surrounded by clashing tectonic plates that commonly produce tsunamis, the protections were so tragically minuscule compared with the nearly 46-foot tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima plant on March 11th. Offshore breakwaters, designed to guard against typhoons but not tsunamis, succumbed quickly as the first line of defense. The wave grew three times as tall as the bluff on which the plant had been built.”

The entire Japanese nation, with a widespread global response, is reacting to the crisis, dealing with the damaged nuclear plants, the release of radiation, and the dislocation of millions of Japanese. The Japanese government has rated the disaster at the same level as the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Russia of April 1986, and the consequences are still in doubt.

When the world breaks, we still have a future, but we have no choice but to cope with the current situation and hopefully can productively modify our stance to the future going forward. The world break can overwhelm us with its immensity since we commonly see ourselves as smaller than the world. Yet, we have choices in that moment of what we will do—we can, in fact, get “bigger” than the breakdown—go beyond the limits of possibilities inherent in our old interpretations of the world. For those of us who are leaders, helping people when their world breaks are part of the value we offer and how we learn most powerfully is through the changes in our own lives.

Many of us are coping with other immense breaks in our world including the 2008 financial crisis that the world economy is still recovering from and other natural disasters. The current debate in the US Congress is about creating an immense break in the future for entire generations of people with possible changes to Medicare and Social Security. The global warming phenomenon is advancing faster than scientific predictions, and we will all have to cope with the widespread consequences of weather shifts.

These are examples of breaks of global scale, but in our individual lives our worlds can also be broken: the death of a parent or a child, losing a job, and health crises. Our future can be broken with positive changes that require new coping as well: getting married, the birth of a child, or unexpected, dramatic, financial success. Our clients may have the survival of their businesses or careers threatened or an overwhelming trajectory of increased demand. Last year in my own life: I completed a divorce, got married, had a child leave home, recovered from surgery, had another child in treatment, published a book, had multiple planned business engagements canceled, and had an overwhelming business schedule.

How do we help ourselves, others, our communities, and even our world cope when the world breaks, when the future breaks?  There are some as coaches who specialize in helping people with life transitions, but I believe that all leaders and coaches should be able to face the experience of a world breaking with others, and it is, in fact, a life skill for everyone.

What I have learned in over 30 years of exploration of leadership with my colleagues dealing with breaks in organizations and people’s lives is that productive coping is a learnable skill, a leadership skill, a professional skill, and a life and human skill. Principles that have been confirmed through this time include that breaks, sometimes world breaks, are inevitable. No amount of avoidance, prudence, withdrawal, or prediction and control will avoid them. We are finite, and the emergent universe is infinite—it will always unfold surprises. Studies of complex emergent systems such as the economy show that discontinuous breaks are normal and unforeseeable, except for the fact that they will occur at some unpredictable time.

Breaks, or breakdowns, are a moment when our transparency of how we see the world is broken, and we must notice and cope with new actions and possibilities. We can learn to ask for help—a skill that is not deeply encouraged in our culture and is often missing in organizations and teams. We can learn to anticipate better—this doesn’t eliminate breakdowns but tends to improve the class of breakdowns we will encounter. We can find and use equipment that helps us or invent what is missing.

In fact, such breaks are always a moment that opens new opportunities for invention and innovation to take care of the breakdowns. This shows up if we can manage our emotions and moods, which are always triggered by a break, from closing moods such as fear, anxiety, and resignation, to opening ones such as wonder, ambition, curiosity, and possibility. People who face terminal illness often report that they come more alive from this break, and in a popular country song, the lyrics say, “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dyin’.”

We face small breaks in our lives every day, and they are a chance to practice with the root skills of productively coping when the world breaks. We are surprised, disappointed, triggered, and have breakdowns. The most fundamental skill is with the body, to manage the reaction of contraction and tension and to relax and reopen to the situation.

Our possibilities are determined by our awareness and our attention, and we can train them for breakdowns, instead of having the breakdown take them from us. We can learn to manage our emotional reactions and moods to start from acceptance of the situation, to enter the situation without the domination of fear, and to cope, learn, and perhaps innovate.  A huge reaction that most people in our culture have is to contract, withdraw, and go solo. A breakdown is a time to relax, reach out and connect, and open conversations where new possibilities can be opened with others.

Regardless of the break, we always have our bodies and our breath; we have our care and our commitment; we have the capacity to learn and to act, and we can always come back to our ground for taking care and adapt ourselves to a new path. We can go beyond having to know in order to act and have not-knowing be the beginning of the actions and skills of invention, innovation, experimentation, and exploration. We can learn to cope with our triggering and bring choice to our bodies, our emotions and moods, our attention, and our capacity to enter and act. We can learn this with appropriate practice, and when we learn this in our own experience and embodiment, we become a more valuable leader for people when their world breaks.

When we learn to accept the fact of our finitude, to accept that breaks are part of life, and to learn that we can face and enter these moments with presence, calm focus, and the capacity to improvise, learn, and innovate, then we will have new ways to dance with life and to lead.

When the world breaks, we can learn to be bigger than the break, to open and enter a new future, instead of the broken old one—a future held in our care, in a dance with aliveness and gratitude, with a commitment to taking care.

In this video, Bob Dunham explores leadership in the face of the world breaking. Join a conversation in response to the crises in the world today.