Leading Through Crisis as an Expat: Lessons from the War Zone

The following is part two of the Leading Through Crisis as an Expat series.  In this series we explore the cultural implications of working and living abroad through national crises.  My family and I lived in Japan through a 5 month personal health crisis, the H1N1 Pandemic, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and in Korea during the ascension and subsequent unrest of Kim Jung Eun’s first days.  No crisis is easy.  But a crisis in a foreign land is even more difficult and exhausting.  These are the lessons my teams and I learned.

My family and I moved from Tokyo to Seoul in the beginning days of Kim Jung Un’s ascension to power.  This was only about 10 months after we had endured the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.  It was a strange time for the world but it was much closer to home for us. We were 30 miles from the North Korea border –  incredibly close to an international flashpoint for our family of 4.  My mother in the states was begging us to come home.  My in-laws were not happy.

It was just about the same time that Kim began shelling a South Korean island, injuring many and killing one.  South Koreans were angry.  The US was threatening retaliation.  A senior level US Army officer went to our church. I asked him how we should handle this.

“You got an underground parking garage in your building?” he asked.  Yes, we replied.

“Good, if there is ever any shelling of Seoul, go to that basement for a few hours.  It’ll be over in a few hours but during that time it will be hell on earth.”  I swallowed hard.  My wife looked at him blankly.  He was obviously trying to make us feel better…but it wasn’t working well.

My own stress level skyrocketed.  What had I done?  I had moved my family to an active war zone (no armistice had ever been signed). There was unrest, and we were 30 miles away from the action.  We weathered daily briefings, frantic calls from home, jumpiness at every sound, school drills. We lived on the Han River opposite of downtown Seoul.  Every day we traversed one of over a dozen bridges that connected one side to the other.  We learned during that time that every crossing over the Han was rigged to explode in case of attack.  We were driving across dynamite-laden bridges every single day.

At my office you would expect chaos, fear, intense discussions.  But to my dismay…nothing.  No emotion.  No fear.  No reaction.

Everything was business as usual. Normal. .

To make matters worse my boss, who was a Belgian living in China, was intensely worried about the situation, our team and my family.  Every day he asked me for more information about the company’s “Catastrophe Plan,” which hadn’t been developed before.  I’d never made a catastrophe plan. I asked for the help of my Leadership Team.  Collectively, they rolled their eyes as if to say “Young boy…we’ve been living with this for years and years.  There is no ‘catastrophe plan’ needed.”  My finance director even laughed a bit and said “Here’s the catastrophe plan, Tom…if we go to war, I’m going home to take care of my family.”  

The more nonchalant they acted, the more I pressed.  I remember thinking “They don’t understand…this time is DIFFERENT.”  I was highly anxious. Every minute I felt deep  concern and worry.  I was tense, somber and definitely not “leader-like”.

My team?  No fear. No reaction. Normal.

As you now know there was no war, no injuries, no death.  Just saber rattling and tension.  But for us foreigners living in Seoul, it was terrifying. We were constantly concerned for our families, for our team, and for our company. 

Being in the middle of a crisis is difficult for anyone. And for an expat leader, it’s more complicated. Your outlook and attitude influences others. You can make the situation better or worse. And that’s a lot of responsibility, especially when all you want to do is curl up in a dark corner and just wait for it all to be over. 

Here are a few things you can do to help yourself and help your team through crisis:

  1. Tone and temperature
    During national emergencies we talk about it, we read about it, we are consumed by it.  As a foreigner, if you don’t speak the local language, you don’t have many people to talk to.  So you might take that concern to your team, maybe it becomes all you talk about.   Check your tone and temperature before engaging your team. You may not feel super-confident about the situation and that’s fine.  After a day or so, decide that you will limit the time you spend talking about the day’s events, perhaps once in the morning and once when you adjourn for the day.  With your team, however, make sure your direction is clear, your comments calm and your demeanor is appropriate.
  2. Find local sources of information in your native language
    In a crisis, you need to be informed.  In a foreign land with language barriers you may feel insufficiently knowledgeable and out of the loop.  It’s hard to know what the real story is.  Create relationships with your local embassy, with international organizations such as the Red Cross, and with organizations from your home country. In my case, it was the local American Chamber of Commerce.  Having the ability to discuss the situation with other foreigners in your mother tongue is critical to feeling in control and informed.
  3. Have a trusted bi-cultural, bi-lingual with whom you can digest information
    While discussing with other foreigners is helpful, having a local with whom you can dive deeper into the local opinion, news and updates is critical.  By the time an official notice comes to you in your own language, several days may have passed.  It’s critical that you have a trusted confidante with whom you can sit and read a newspaper, an official announcement or a newscast.  You will feel immensely more informed with a trusted, bi-lingual friend to keep you up to speed.

Understand that your perspective will never be the same as your local team’s– Perhaps the hardest lesson for me to learn was that, no matter how upset or worried I got, my team simply reacted very differently.  Wherever you are in the world, your life experiences define your reactions.  Your teams will react to national emergencies based on their life experiences as well. So, yes, their reaction may seem out of place – foreign.  Sometimes you will worry intensely and the team will be calm and sometimes vice versa.  Seek first to understand.  Why are they so calm?  Why are they so upset?  Why or why not is this a big deal?  Ask them…listen intently and value the responses.

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