What an Earthquake Taught Me About Adaptive Leadership and Building a Team of Teams

By: Mike LeFever

Retired three-star admiral Mike LeFever oversaw US relief efforts in response to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

Earthquakes have been dominating the headlines this past week. With back-to-back quakes rocking Japan, the massive weekend temblor that hit Ecuador, and the 110-year anniversary of the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it’s easy to see why.

Reading about these earthquakes in the news instantly transported me back a decade, to an experience that changed my life. In October 2005, I was the Commander of Expeditionary Strike Group ONE on deployment to the Middle East. The Hindu Kush region was devastated by an earthquake in which more than 87,000 people died and over 3.5 million were displaced from their homes.

Unexpectedly, as a rear-admiral I was tasked to go ashore and to lead the US Military Efforts in Pakistan. I never imagined, after a career of life at sea, that I would end up in the mountains of Pakistan, an admiral in the Himalayas.

While this week’s earthquakes were thankfully less devastating than the 2005 disaster, we must remember the valuable lessons we learned a decade ago. The U.S. response has become a case study for reacting to a natural disaster — but it didn’t seem like that at the time. We had to navigate a different environment, a new (and unknown) mission, and complicated relationships. When lives were on the line, we learned the hard way that we had no choice but to adapt.

In October 2005, I arrived on the scene with a small team just 36 hours after the earthquake. Entire villages and towns were completely destroyed. The devastation was horrific. To top it off, bad weather, blocked roads, and mountainous terrain further delayed the arrival of assistance as 978 aftershocks rattled the region. We would later learn that 3.5 million people were left homeless, with winter rapidly approaching.

It was utter chaos on the ground, to say the least. Even in a situation where we all seemingly had common ground (a desire to help), there were massive organizational challenges to sort through.

I found people and organizations, with their corresponding personalities and organizational egos and biases, from all over the world, responding with gear and supplies — but there was no one in charge. I was the outsider brought into help. And nothing stands out more than an admiral in the Himalayas. Furthermore, I was also operating in a country that did not want U.S. boots on the ground, dealing with NGOs who did not usually work with the US military, and coordinating massive relief efforts with our coalition partners. Needless to say, there was some friction.

Above all, it was a completely different challenge than anything for which we had trained for — as a naval officer I had never expected to be leading international relief efforts in the remote mountains of Pakistan. I never imagined my team would be doing this — and we had no guidance on how to conduct an operation of this magnitude.

However, we had no choice but to figure it out. A quick and adaptable response was required from the get-go. Here are the major lessons I learned along the way:

  1. Build a common purpose: It was, not surprisingly, easy to rally around a mission of saving lives in a disaster event. The US Embassy team agreed to three goals: to provide earthquake relief, support the Pakistani government, and advance US-Pakistani relations. However, each entity involved in the relief effort had its own unique role and viewed its abilities as distinct and non-negotiable. Our challenge was to play to the strengths and culture of each organization, focus on what each brought to the mission, harness the contributions of all, and encourage cooperation. Another key to success was our willingness and ability to suspend organizational and personal egos and really focus on a building a “team of teams” that could accomplish the mission together.
  2. Establish trust and supporting relationships: I quickly realized I had to make relationships a top priority if we were going to be successful. We were thrust into an unknown environment and tasked to work with international organizations with whom we had never worked before. As such, I emphasize three priorities: relationships, relationships, and relationships. In that order. Getting to know the individuals you are working with to understand their culture, their perspectives, and to develop those relationships was absolutely critical. In this vein, I made a conscious decision to adopt a strategy we use in the military. We have a construct called “supported” and “supporting” relationships. Being a “supported” commander means everyone is there to support you. So even though, I had resources (like helicopters and personnel) and the technical know-how, and very easily could have insisted on being in charge, I stressed to my team that we were in the “supporting” role in this mission. In a supporting relationship, you work to provide whatever is needed to accomplish the mission. This made the other groups realize it was about the team and our success was measured in what we all achieved.
  3. Share information: The wide tyranny of distance and geography and how everything we did was being viewed locally, regionally, and internationally meant we all needed to be on the same page. We created a network of forums to be able to share information and intent, both internal to US government and external to our host nation and partners. We were fortunate to have a strong Ambassador who set his own operating rhythm, with twice a day meetings to align the US relief effort with all the stakeholders in the embassy and other agencies. I had a separate meeting at our airfield headquarters and did video teleconferencing with all my commanders, along with coalition and Pakistani partners in mid-afternoon. Each of the meetings was a great venue to bring everyone together to review the common operating picture, challenges to success, and opportunities that we could take advantage of. It was open and all-inclusive, with complete transparency where everyone could raise issues, from the operator at the airfield transporting supplies to the Ambassador to the Pakistani military representatives.
  4. Adaptability creates results: At the conclusion of our mission, we were responsible for saving thousands of lives and had the highest approval rating ever for the U.S. in Pakistan — over 76 percent. Making this transition inside and across an organization is hard. Changing a culture, we know is uncomfortable. It is hard as leaders, but we have to change and adapt constantly by changing personal behavior, processes, communications, strategy and culture — whatever it takes to win.

After six months, the Task Force was disbanded and we returned to our ships. But the lessons stuck with me for the rest of my life. The world has become unbelievably complex, and the way we lead, manage, and respond to crises needs to change alongside it.

Mike LeFever is a Senior Advisor at McChrystal Group, an advisory services firm dedicated to building teams capable of solving the world’s most complex leadership challenges through a team of teams approach. LeFever serves as a mentor to senior executives at multi-national companies on leadership, strategy, and change management issues. He also speaks to leaders and organizations at conferences around the country on leadership and cultural issues. LeFever retired as a vice-admiral after a 38-year career in the US Navy.