Just recently I went on holiday to the beautiful island of Kos in Greece, with my two teenage children age 17 and 19. We had been looking forward to this holiday for some weeks and had the date in the diary but had not decided on the island until a week before. When we flew off on 15th July it was with some mild trepidation as I have become a difficult flyer in the last few years!
We arrived there without any mishap though and Thomson holidays had described the hotel beautifully. The kids and I were tired, but happy, and got on with the job of enjoying the holiday. With hindsight though, I done the wrong thing in booking it at such short notice because we had the only remaining room left and it was a family room, so my kids were sharing with me. Although I love them to bits, they do not love each other well, so the bickering was quite hard on the nerves!
The best night of the holiday by far was on the evening of Thursday, 20 July where we sat in a beautiful open-air restaurant in the city of Kos with the House Martins noisily moving around us and an excellent singer accompanying a piano nearby. My kids and I completely agreed this was a beautiful evening and we returned happy and full!
Little did we realise how eventful the night was going to become. At 1:21 am exactly the first earthquake hit and it turned out we were very near the epicentre. I remember the violent shaking of the bed, the room, and waking to sounds of crashing all around me. The beautiful standard lamp with a glass lampshade fell to the floor as did my son’s pint glass which he had enjoyed a beer in the night before. I could hear crashing coming from the bathroom and inside the cupboards and even in my drowsy state, knew that the only explanation possible was that it had been an earthquake. Thinking I was doing my kids a favour I can remember shouting at them “don’t worry, it’s okay, it’s only an earthquake!”. All this did was panic them, and they individually leapt as fast as they could onto my bed. With hindsight, I’m tremendously relieved that we all shared the same room so that at least I could ensure they were both safe very quickly.
I can remember putting my legs down on the floor and thinking about whether to get up. Not that it wasn’t the most sensible thing to have done, but it was so disorienting having something as major as the building moving from underneath you that it was difficult to get your head round how something so amazing could be happening. Just as I was contemplating this, the second earthquake hit although this was referred to as an after-shock. At the time, it felt little different in intensity and I can remember my daughter running out of the door and in to the corridor to check what other people were doing. She made an instant decision we would be better if we followed everyone else as a trickle of them were now exiting the building. I threw on some clothes as did my son and we followed her out.
We were lucky, in that our room was very near the foyer of the hotel and although that had never troubled us in terms of noise during our stay, we were grateful for it now. We followed everybody else and as we exited the front door another after-shock hit. The contrast between the warmth of the outdoors, the fear in people’s faces and the feeling as the ground moved beneath my feet was a very weird, and confusing emotional experience. My reaction in general was to employ logic I think and assume that if we had survived so far, then everything would be fine, so I joined a crowd of other people stood outside the hotel.
Within minutes more people joined us and the chatter began about what we had all experienced, how it had felt, and what we’d thought it was. We looked up at the outside of the building but could see nothing in the pitch black. About 30 minutes or so after we had been evacuated many people around us began looking at their phones and I was stunned to find The Guardian had already put a piece on their website which told us an earthquake of 6.7 on the Richter scale had hit equi-distant between Bodrum (which we could see as we looked out of our room), and Kos where we were staying. Two people had apparently died because the roof of their building had collapsed on them and several hundred were currently being treated for injuries possibly because of the risk of being crushed as they panicked or tried to get out of buildings with narrow doors, unlike our own.
As we stood on the forecourt of the hotel milling around and chatting, we were alternately anxious and resigned, as there seemed little we could do and truthfully, we had no control over the situation. Every now and again, I would wander up to the front of the hotel in the hope of finding somebody who seemed to have some information. In my naivete I also wondered if it would be okay to go back inside the building.
About an hour or so after we had been evacuated, the manager of the hotel requested that a security guy use a golf cart and drive around the forecourt and the car park area with a selection of towels, sheets, and blankets for those of us who were chilled. It was not that it was cold but many of us were in shock and those that were particularly unhappy were still shaking. I found myself frequently taking solace in hugging my children who were equally alternating between anxiety and deep gratitude that we were all okay. After the delivery of the towels we received a second delivery which was free water bottles both of which I was very grateful for. Looking back on this experience, I would say that one thing this man got right consistently both throughout the night, and throughout all the following day, was that he made every facility available to us in any way he could. He had no experience of an earthquake as the last one that had hit the island was 50 years or more ago. I was, and remain, grateful to him for being practical and useful.
As the night wore on though, a growing sense of dissatisfaction was felt amongst everybody near me. They were lacking in information; did not feel comforted because of that lacking, and some of them were fearful that we would not only be subject to more after-shocks but that we might even experience a tsunami. I confess these things had not occurred to me. Maybe I was just tired, or my personality is such that I think very logically, but I could not see the point in further scaring myself. So, each time this would happen and people around me would start to feel more and more distressed, I would walk off in the hunt for information. Whenever I returned I would impart what I knew which was sparse but in general, useful, in that it told people that we were either asked to wait outside until we could see the structural damage of the building, or that we would be allowed in (at our own risk). Either way, it struck me that I was doing something and that in taking action, I felt better and people around me valued it.
Several men whose practical nature meant they decided to be resourceful, ran inside the building at speed, down the main staircase which was quite beautiful and out of the back of the building down to the sea where a selection of sunbeds, and chairs would normally be used to sit and enjoy the view, sunbathe, or sit around the pool. Between the two of them they brought back about five sunbeds. In the gap of time, a heavily pregnant lady had become uncomfortable at standing and uncertain of whether it was a good idea to go back in the building itself (and therefore back to bed), or try to sit down on the floor, a well-meaning friend tried to attract the attention of the men as they walked past with the sunbeds they were holding. She asked if they could leave one of the beds for the pregnant lady but their retort was “no, the beds were for their kids”. Other than that, rather sad and dismissive remark, I heard only kindness and the camaraderie that comes from like-minded people in a similar situation working together to cope.
Many people went inside the lobby and took the very large removable cushions from the chairs. Some even decided to try and lie there but as soon as another after-shock hit and the building would shake, they would come out screaming. Sadly, they learned the hard way it wasn’t worth the effort and therefore stayed outside. I went back into the room long enough to grab a couple of blankets from our beds and three pillows and then returned and placed them on the concrete floor outside. As I lay there myself and cuddled with my kids I looked up at the sky and felt a surprising sense of resignation as there was quite simply nothing else I could do. As dawn broke I looked around me and a number of people were asleep but far more were still anxious, to the point where some were even stood upright and determined not to rest. A small selection had gone inside the building, packed their suitcases, and called taxis in the hope of being taken off the island once they had arrived at the airport.
The purpose of writing about this is to try to illustrate that there were several things I feel were missing on that night yet I do not feel any sense of criticism when I say this. What the manager of the hotel got right without a doubt was the practical, supportive, and vital solution to our needs for warmth, water, and the realisation (although obvious), that we were all okay. What he did not get right and what we vitally needed, came to me the following day.
- What I think all of us would have valued is if he had stood on top of a box or chair and shouted at us to collect near him. With the benefit of having all of us together he could then have said to us soon after we were made to leave the building, that this was for our own safety, that he could not see whether the building had been significantly damaged or otherwise, and that as a result it was safer and better for is to bed down outside for the rest of the night. This would have had the effect of managing our expectations.
- The second thing that would have helped us enormously was to tell us that it is not possible to experience a tsunami in the Aegean Sea. None of us knew that at the time and the reason why it is impossible is because the islands are too close together and a tsunami needs the open sea and the force of water to gather momentum. If he had helped us by saying this he would have managed our fears.
- The final thing is if he had thought to say, truthfully, that whilst he and his team had no direct experience of an earthquake in their lifetime he knew the protocol and that this was to stay outside, away from any potential risk, and that he and his team would do everything they could to help us.
More than anything, this vital inclusion of information would have soothed us. Sadly, for him, this is the reason why many people around me were very critical of him yet I remain eternally grateful for the simple reality he created for us, which in fairness, also meant that not a single member of his team went home that night.
It is the administration of the practical and task oriented needs that made for good management that night and I am not disputing that he got that right, but to facilitate, control and soothe the emotional and people oriented fear we felt, took leadership – and that was what was lacking that night. The suggestions I have made above would have corrected that but I’d have seemed loud or pushy if I’d demanded it at the time.
When I shared this experience with a recent Executive group they understandably identified that there are few experiences in life that would be as dramatic as this and that only a ‘disaster management’ policy, which many businesses rarely produce, would come close. There is some truth to that, but all I can say to you is that for me it was the closest and most obvious, observable example of the difference between being a good manager and a good leader, that I had ever seen. So, if you want to be a good leader my advice would be to concentrate on managing the perception, emotions, and probable fears in any one situation you instigate, especially involving significant change – and let’s hope that you don’t ever experience something quite as intense as what we had to go through!
By Sue Firth, Business Psychologist & expert in Stress