“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” —John F. Kennedy
There’s nothing quite like a monumental crisis to bring people together. The arbiter of our fractured relationship came in the way of the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. It sounds dramatic, but there we were, about to perform at Fiserv Forum for 5,000 banking CEOs, presidents and other high-level bankers at the Venetian in Las Vegas, when there, splattered all over the front pages of The New York Times, was the headline that read, “Lehman Brothers Collapse Sends Shockwave Around World.”
None of the members of Four Day Weekend were bankers, and our knowledge of complex banking regulations was limited to having a free checking account. Yet we knew this was a potential crisis that could literally grind the U.S. economy to a halt. The warnings that were coming from the U.S. government hardly seemed hyperbolic; this may be the biggest collapse in 80 years.
As we were preparing to take the stage that morning in mid-September in 2008, almost everyone was on edge. How did this happen? How could the largest economy in the world lose one of the largest financial services firms in the world?
Sometimes it is best not to fully know how dire things are in a certain moment, and this certainly was the case at the time. Although each of us knew these warnings couldn’t be good, we had no idea how long it would take for the U.S. economy to recover.
But we realized what we needed to do. We needed to work… together.
Related: 5 Ways Leaders Can Build Team Spirit
Crisis, Party of Six, Your Table Is Ready
There are two things that can happen to an organization when crisis arises. It can take a splintered group and destroy it, or it can bring an organization closer together and ultimately make it stronger. Which tack the group takes depends solely on the leadership of the organization.
In the face of crisis, great leaders project a feeling of calm to those they are leading. Everyone gets scared when crisis arises; the best leaders let those they are leading know that everything is going to be OK. We always say there’s a big difference between saying a very frightened or not assured “I don’t know” and saying a calm and confident “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out.”
For instance, once during the middle of a live show, a gentleman had a stroke. We could hear murmurings of a problem during our performance, and then suddenly we heard the words no one ever really wants to hear: “We need a doctor!”
Immediately, everyone could feel the uneasiness of the crowd as they wondered what was transpiring. Instead of panicking, everyone in the cast remained exceptionally calm and we called the necessary emergency caregivers to arrive to the theater to give aid to our patron. The gentleman was quickly taken out of the theater and brought to a nearby hospital, where medical professionals cared for him. In this situation, it was incumbent that we remain calm in the face of this very serious situation—and we did. The audience followed our lead, and the situation was handled quickly and without further problems.
There are Happy Accidents even in the face of the most challenging situations. Like any crisis, there was a silver lining to this gentleman having a stroke in our theater. His daughter had been a longtime fan of the show, and she had brought him to a live show when he would normally be home alone on a Saturday night. Obviously, no one wants to have a stroke; however, because he was in our theater surrounded by laughter, this gentleman was able to get the care he needed much quicker than he would have had he been alone.
Something interesting happened following the intermission. As the second act began, we noticed that the cathartic laughter in the theater was especially boisterous. The energy was electric, and why was that? It was the pure healing release of tension and stress that manifested itself through laughter. We saw firsthand the healing qualities of laughter in the face of crisis. Crises do arise, and sometimes lightheartedness is needed to navigate those waters.
Would You Like Your Financial Meltdown on White or Wheat?
As we made our way through the remainder of 2008 and into 2009, the financial meltdown became one of the best disasters to bring us together. As America’s business ground to a halt and budgets became tighter, one of the first line items to be eliminated was the entertainment budget. Soon, much of the corporate work that we had grown so accustomed to doing was gone, leaving huge gaps in our booking calendar. Many Fortune 500 companies slashed their entertainment budgets, opting instead to have one of their own people act as host/master of ceremonies for their events.
We call this the “Earl-from-Accounting Effect.” When budgets get lean, someone in the organization invariably will suggest cutting the speaker’s budget and have one of their own host the event. “Get Earl from Accounting to do it. He’s funny. He can pull it off.” In the upcoming 18 months, Earl from Accounting would take quite a bit of our work.
Although this temporarily hurt us financially, it soon became one of the biggest Happy Accidents of all.
The dire financial situation gave us a lot of additional time on our calendar, so we found ourselves back in our theater working more on our live production for our weekly shows. We spent the time working to revamp the show with new material, and we worked on the theater facility to improve and repair some of the things that had been ignored due to our busy schedules. The theater improved and the show improved, but most importantly the show improved because our relationships improved.
We found ourselves laughing and having fun doing the very thing we loved the most, the reason why we got into this to begin with—our live show. We were having more fun than ever, and it began showing in our live performances. Audiences looking for an escape found the Four Day Weekend Theater the perfect place to come to sit back, unwind and have a good laugh. Believe it or not, in the midst of a crisis, we began having the time of our lives again. The most important aspect of this journey was that our friendship together had returned to old times. We were loving what we were doing.
America felt frightened and scared by this financial meltdown, and many people sought refuge in laughter. People were so bogged down by the persistent drumbeat of bad news day in and day out that many searched for some sort of fun in their life.
We knew people needed a break, and we took steps to avoid talking about the bad news in our show and become the healing salve of laughter that they were seeking. We helped our audiences get some relief from the bad news. Countless times after shows, people would come up to us and say, “Thank you for the laughs. I really needed it.” We were seeing the transformative power of our Four Day Weekend mission statement: “Healing through laughter.”
Pull Up a Deck Seat on the Titanic and Enjoy the View
Being the captain of a ship seems like fun and games until you accidentally steer your ship into the side of an iceberg. A leader’s job starts when crisis begins. When your team is doing well and things are rolling along nicely, the best thing you can do is to step back and allow your team to shine. The time a leader is needed the most is when your team begins to struggle. A great leader jumps in and guides the team out of the choppy waters of the sea, and like Captain Smith of the Titanic, a leader’s job is to ride the ship all the way down if that is what is meant to happen. Very few people are willing to take on this kind of responsibility, but the great leaders do it.
There is a very big difference between a leader who says, “Charge that hill” and the leader who says, “Follow me, we are charging that hill.” In improvisation, we call this the “hotspot.”
In improvisation when a scene is going poorly, an inexperienced improviser will stand on the sideline in fear and say, “Well, that scene is sucking. No way I am going into that one.” A seasoned improviser sees fellow improvisers in the “hotspot” and says, “They are in trouble. I need to get in and help out.”
In improvisation, we have trained ourselves to jump into the mix when things are going poorly; however, if a scene is going very well, we live by the adage, “The best way to enter a good scene is not to enter.” If things are going well, we step back and let our fellow improvisers shine—and only when we are needed do we enter a scene.
This is true of great leaders as well. The “hotspot” is a term we use to identify crisis. The “hotspot” is where very few people feel comfortable residing because it implies danger. Things are not operating as they normally do, and this often creates paralysis in people. Leaders recognize this and see opportunity in the “hotspot.” Great entrepreneurs use the “hotspot” to gain an advantage.
There are two distinct types of people: One encounters the “hotspot” and allows their fear to get the best of them. The other encounters the “hotspot” and channels their fear to find opportunity they have never seen before.
Most people will follow a great leader, and in fact long to have that kind of leader. In the world of Four Day Weekend, we use a phrase that sums up the team spirit: “You go, I go, we go.”
Lifeboat, Party of Six
And then, like it always does, the cloud lifted. America, like she always does, clawed her way back and soon there was a little bit of light. The economy slowly recovered and U.S. corporations began getting a little bit of flexibility in their budgets again. One of the beautiful Happy Accidents that occurred was that companies began to see new value in what we added to their corporate functions. Fortune 500 companies discovered that although “Earl from Accounting” is a hoot around the watercooler, there is a big difference between telling your bar joke at work and having a professional comedian run a live show.
Our calendar slowly began filling in again, and soon we were making our way back out on the road to perform corporate events. Post-collapse, we saw a different paradigm in corporate functions. More and more companies wanted to bring the fun back into work after the frightening times of the last 18 months. They realized the inherent value of investing in fun for their employees. Statistics show that an energized workforce that’s having fun is a more productive workforce. The attitude became, “If we can survive the Great Recession, we can do anything.”
Perception is everything in life. The economic collapse was by all accounts just shy of calamitous, and there was little any of us could do about it. For Four Day Weekend, we could go back to what we did the best, making people laugh, while we weathered the storm. We concentrated on our live show and did everything we could to see the proverbial silver lining around the storm cloud.
We didn’t have the luxury of hindsight at the time, so it was often difficult seeing the Happy Accident in all of this. But continued success requires patience. We must have faith in what we are doing and allow things to align for our success to take hold. Do the work you can and let things happen, as they will.
We couldn’t see that the economic collapse would actually prove our value to companies in the corporate circuit. In our minds at the time, we considered that the corporate segment of our business might be gone forever. The words “next Great Depression” were being uttered daily, and we were thankful that we had our live theater operation to keep us afloat.
Happy Accidents wait for those who keep moving through the darkness. You either adapt or die. We must only be able to do the work that is necessary and trust that things will work out in our favor if we work hard and keep a positive mindset.
- Remain calm in the face of a crisis.
- Look for the hidden opportunity, in the worst of adversities.
- Leaders jump into the “hotspot” when those around them are struggling.
- The clouds will lift. Keep working on your core competencies.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Happy Accidents by David Ahearn, Frank Ford and David Wilk. Copyright © 2017 by Four Day Weekend, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available from all bookstores and online booksellers.