by Prudence Bushnell
Twenty- three years after the East Africa embassy bombings, I still talk about my experience as ambassador through the prism of leadership, specifically, transformational leadership. I had not heard of it this term in 1998 but, instinctually, I did put it into practice to cope with the catastrophic aftermath of the August 7 al Qaeda attack on the U.S embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The truck bomb detonated in the small parking lot behind our workplace killed 213 people and injured thousands of others. This is what worked for us.
The so-called “4 I’s” of transformational leadership summarized the culture we created to confront what lay ahead. What goes missing from on-line explanations of the theory are elements that were key to safety and wellbeing in our world.
I want to describe transformational leadership as it played out in a crisis and focus subsequent articles on groups and trust. How can you tell good from poor performing groups – and what do you do then? How do you earn trust? When do you give trust? What do you do when it is lacking? If you have a story, please let me know. https://prudencebushnell.com/contact/
We were blown up mid-morning on a sunny Friday. I got on the community radio network that evening to say,
“we’ll get through this and we’ll get through this together.”
On Sunday, I learned that our dead American colleagues would be leaving the next day, family members to follow. I raced from the Control Center to our residence to piece together a memorial. Everyone else looked too busy so I went alone. It may have been my house, but the staff–who were off for the day–ran the kitchen. I had no idea where the coffee pot was. What was I thinking?
Then came a knock on the front door: “Do you need help?” asked an embassy spouse. Within hours we had gotten it all together: coffee and cookies awaited on the dining room table and fresh roses filled buckets. We were able to remember our colleagues and grieve with their families as a pianist played softly in the background, . We talked. We wept. As we ended, someone played Taps.
On December 31, 1998, the American community continued its tradition of a tailgate sundowner in Nairobi Game Park.
We mourned our dead and considered our survival under a comforting sunset Lee Ann Ross was able to photograph. A mentor once counseled me “Take care of your people and the rest will take care of itself.” That works for inspirational motivation, too.
Our workplace was uninhabitable.
Staff had been transformed into first responders, grievance counselors, crisis managers. We had carried out ourselves 46 dead colleagues and many more wounded. For 48 hours we faced these challenges alone because three different rescue aircraft suffered mechanical difficulties. Then came hundreds of investigators, military and civilian personnel, and Washington V.I.P.s.
I did not need to challenge the status quo or encourage new approaches. The status quo was the challenge and new approaches emerged naturally.
Each of us experienced and reacted to the bombing differently and we talked about both incessantly as we processed events of that day over the next months. Each of us had a clear role to play in the recovery and we relied on each other to get jobs done. Good and poor performances stood out as never before.
Working cheek to jowl in the leased Agency for International Development building, it was impossible to avoid physical and emotional contact. Members of the community made themselves stand out. I paid attention.
I sent people home to cry on the day of the bombing. I wore red the next day and handed the operations of the embassy over to our rescuers the following weekend to stop people from overworking. I put up a poster about courage and turned part of our garden into a remembrance area. I could not remove pain, sorrow, or anger but I could help create an environment in which healing was possible. It took the full community to do so.
A style of leadership that focuses on shared values and group effort to create a better future demands the awareness that leadership is not about the leader, it is about the group. Relationships within the group and with the leader matter. So does trust. I had to earn it and I had to give it. Watch for the stories to come about group and trust.