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What I learned from leading in times of disaster - Mark Malcomson

5th October 2023

By Mark Malcomson, principal and CEO of City Lit

This isn’t an ordinary story, but it is one that everyone knows a part of due to the nature of the day. Despite it hopefully being a once in a lifetime event, I think there are lessons here on how leaders might approach disaster. The toll that a disaster - whether it's external, personal or otherwise - can take on mental health is vast, and therefore I hope my experience is of benefit to you this World Mental Health Day.

It started on a Monday at 3:30am in Boston. At this time, I am working and living in New York and have the overly grand title of President of the New York Institute of Finance, but I am in Boston for an early meeting, so have come up the night before. I am in a very nice high-rise hotel at some floor in the 30s and the fire alarm sounds. In the confusion, I pull on clothes and head down an interminable number of stairs into the plaza outside whilst we wait for the all-clear. That takes forever and by the time I get back to my room there is no way to get back to sleep. Little did I know that the hotel also had a group of terrorists in residence, who would change the course of history only a couple of days later. I still wonder whether the fire alarm was a freaky coincidence or something more sinister.

The meeting goes well and, at end of the afternoon, I head out to Logan airport for the flight back to New York. The airport is in the usual chaos associated with the flight cancellations due to summer thunderstorms which plague flights on the East Coast that time of year. All flights were cancelled, a couple of colleagues and I make the decision to try to get the last train back to New York. We make the last train by 30 seconds with my shirt soaked in sweat for the first hour of the journey.

The next morning, I wake up tired and stressed for an early morning budget meeting at the office, which I know is going to be challenging. I didn’t start Tuesday September 11th, 2001, in the best shape as I headed to the 17th Floor of 2 World Trade Centre.

Our main meeting room is in the centre of the building with no windows. At 8:45am one of my colleagues rushed into the meeting room to say there had been an explosion in Tower 1. Whilst no one knew exactly what had happened, and certainly not that a plane was involved, it was clear that there had been a major incident. I got everyone to head to the stairwell, apparently ignoring the stay in place instructions over the tanoy, as I felt that getting to the ground floor would give us the most options. I then went around all the offices and classrooms to ensure that everyone was out before following them down the stairs, for the second evacuation in as many days.

Once in the lobby, the full extent of the horror became clear with debris falling into the small piazza between the two buildings. People were starting to talk about “a plane” and at that point I decided we needed to get away from the building and go through the underground shopping mall below the towers to meet up a few streets away. Having resurfaced and heading away, I was looking back at Tower 1 to see people fall, then suddenly a second plane flew into our tower. All chaos broke loose, and my group scattered having had debris land all around us. The journey back up Manhattan was an odyssey punctuated by the towers falling and a massive ghostly dust cloud coming down Broadway covering everything in its path.

I got back to my apartment to find a number of my colleagues waiting on my doorstep, not being able to get to their homes, and they knew I lived near enough to provide a safe haven. More arrived over the next few hours and we worked together to track down other colleagues. That process took over 24 hours as we mostly had home phone numbers but not mobiles. We were lucky that we lost no-one, but everyone was understandably exceptionally traumatised.

Over the coming months, we moved into the mid-town offices of our parent company, Pearson. We offered counselling, a voluntary package for those who decided that they needed a new start and a lot of tea and sympathy. In the April, we were able to host a big reopening party at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate our 80th birthday.

So, when an organisation or an individual goes through a traumatic incident there are both immediate and long-term effects. The 9-11 attacks were over relatively quickly, but the effects on those immediately involved have lasted for decades. I was shocked and upset this summer to find out that a member of the team had died of cancer recently, quite possibly as a result from particles she inhaled on the day.

On the day, I went into action mode and stayed like that for a long period afterwards. I hope that I was a good, supportive boss and did more right things than wrong ones, and when I made mistakes, that they were with good intentions.

Three weeks after 9-11, my dad died. He had been suffering from Motor Neurons Disease for a year and in the six weeks before had declined rapidly. I had been home to see him the weekend before he died and gone back to New York assuming I had a few more visits left. The day after I returned, my mum called me to say dad’s heart had given way. I got on the plane that night in bits. Having been the one everyone had relied on up until that point, I surrendered to being looked after with colleagues packing for me and sending me back home.

The whirl of arrangements, giving the eulogy, and looking after mum meant that I got back to work a week later absolutely frazzled. I stopped sleeping properly and was exhausted. I went to see my doctor to ask for some sleeping tablets to help sort things out. When we discussed why I was having trouble sleeping, he suggested in very strong terms that I needed to see a therapist. I initially resisted, but eventually gave in and went to see one a friend recommended. My approach was akin to having a course of antibiotics -do what is prescribed and get it over with. I even asked if I could do 10 sessions in a week to get it done. Obviously, looking back, I smile at my self-delusion that there wasn’t anything wrong that couldn’t be fixed quickly. Let’s say it ended up being a lot more than 10 sessions - and the occasional top-up was needed.

My best mate over the last five decades told me a few years ago that whilst talking about 9-11 is a good thing, it is such a big event that it might be hard for people to relate to in their normal lives. I have really struggled to write this piece, which I didn’t expect. I am much more comfortable talking about it, but trying to condense my thoughts has proved very challenging.

What did I learn from the experience?

Firstly, disasters are more than just the event, they are multi-layered, and the ripples can last for months and years. While we might experience an event together, the effects on each of us are very different and can unfold over time in many different ways.

You don’t go into a crisis fully charged and ready for action. No one plans a disaster or crisis, and they more often than not happen when you aren’t in the best shape to deal with them. You have to do what you can in the state you are in. It is as simple as that.

Disaster recovery plans are important, but my view is the disaster you have is never the one you have planned for. The World Trade Centre had an excellent set of plans based around security after the attack on the buildings in 1993. The attack had been from below and therefore the plans were all around stopping another similar attack – no one envisaged an attack from above. Generals fight the last war, as they say, we are bound to do it and can’t plan for every eventuality, but at least be aware of it.

Then, there is the “put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others,” part. As a leader, it is likely that you will put the wellbeing and security of your team to the forefront without ensuring that you have the right support to help you get through. Seeking help and getting support early on is critical for you, and if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for others as they need you operating at your best level.

I am so conscious that at every point, something very different could have happened. I could have made a bad call and put people in danger rather than safety, and that deeply unsettled me for a long time after the events of 9/11. I am also very aware that, had I not made the train back from Boston, then I wouldn’t have been in New York on the day, but watching from afar instead. It might seem perverse, but I am happy I was there, as I can’t imagine not having been with my team during the attack.

We’ve just passed the 22nd anniversary and as usual, there is a flurry of texts and emails from my team in what are known as the “glad we are here” messages. It was Nietzsche, and latterly Kelly Clarkson, who said “what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” I am not sure I completely agree with that, but dealing with a major disaster certainly gives you greater insight and perspective. When Covid struck, I did realise that it was going to be a long slog and not over quickly.

Finally, on a positive note. I ended up staying in New York for two years longer than was originally planned to help re-establish the business. It wasn’t an easy decision and for the first year or so it was really tough, but it was what I felt I had to do. However, halfway through that stint, a year after I would have been back in London, I met a nice American bloke. He is now my husband.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.

Join us for our leading through crises webinar, as part of the AoC and ETF Mental Health & Wellbeing Leadership Programme, on Monday 16 October 10:30-12. This webinar is is aimed at principals and senior leaders in FE. Speakers include Kate Day, Director of operations at DH Associates Ltd and Education Support.

Register here.