What the Great Nepal Earthquake of 2015 taught me about teamwork

I was standing on my rooftop patio, overlooking the sprawling city of Kathmandu, Nepal. The Himalayan foothills in the short distance, and beyond them the towering peaks of Manaslu and Annapurna to the West, Makalu and Mt. Everest to the East. In all, 10 of the highest 14 peaks in the world are in this same mountain range.

On this day though, I felt the concrete rooftop patio drop and shift underneath me. The neighbors yelled and started to run outside. Was this it? Was this the predicted large earthquake that happened in this region every 100 years, give or take a few decades?

That day was just a tremor, a precursor to the large earthquake. We knew it was coming, but we didn't know when.

3 months later I was sleeping in a house near another fault line, the San Andreas fault in California, preparing for my wedding the following week. I awoke at 4am to alerts on my phone that it had happened. The big earthquake had hit Nepal. We knew it was bad, but early reports were all over the map from "the airport is completely unusable" to "everything has been flattened."

After returning to Nepal some months later, the full picture began to emerge. Yes, it was devastating, and yes there were many homes and lives destroyed completely. One mountain village I had visited just the year prior, was completely and utterly destroyed by a massive land and ice slide that crashed down from the peak above it.

We had felt guilty for not being there during the earthquake, both because why did I deserve to survive? But also from the standpoint of not being there to help when it was needed most. My wife and I decided to wait to return, not because we didn't want to help but because we realized that our presence was only going to take away precious resources from those who needed it most. Even our presence could be a distraction from the real work of rebuilding.

When we returned to Kathmandu, our friends told us many stories of the earthquake and the aftermath. What was most surprising was that they spoke of the weeks following the earthquake as a special time, as a time they will never forget. They said that the fact that people had to go outside and sleep in makeshift tent communities, drew people together and formed bonds they had never had before. They became closer with their neighbors and their friends. They worked together to bring in potable water, make meals, provide for those who had lost homes and loved ones. It was cathartic.

One friend who is an expat said that of all his years living in Nepal, the weeks after the earthquake were his favorite because for the first time in his life his mission and purpose were very clear.

There's a silver lining in disaster

In the book Tribe, Sebastian Junger explores this very topic and finds this to be consistent in the aftermath of disasters. Wars, supernatural disasters, and the like actually have the effect of bringing people together. During WWII, Londoners experienced almost no mental illnesses. People spoke of the time with fondness, even though there was obvious loss and heartache. This is not to minimize death, or even to glorify it, but isn't it ironic that times of hardship give our lives purpose and meaning, sometimes for the first time?

The question I've had since the earthquake experience is, "What can teams take away from this? Do we have to wait until a disaster hits in order to feel a sense of unity and purpose?"

I don't believe you should manufacture problems in order to create team cohesion, but I do believe that you can have incredible team cohesion, unit, and sense of purpose without having to wait for a disaster to hit.

Conflict makes for a great novel or movie, and it's also what we are drawn to be involved with in real life.

There are three things I've taken away, that we have incorporated into our business, from these lessons:

  1. If you have a clear and compelling mission, the right people will automatically resonate with it. But it has to matter to you and to your team. If it's just corporate mumbo jumbo, forget about it.

  2. You need to have an enemy, and you need to have conflict to truly have unity. In the earthquake example, the enemy was the earthquake and all the killing and damage that it had done. The conflict was the struggle to get help to people. Conflict makes for a great novel or movie, and it's also what we are drawn to be involved with in real life.

  3. If you align behind that mission, show up every day and build unity and have a culture of fun and creativity to get there, you'll change people's lives. This kind of experience, this kind of orientation to the world is so rare that people will be changed when they come in contact with it, and they won't forget it.

What can you learn from earthquakes and disasters, that will help your team become stronger and more effective?

My business, ALIGN for Business, helps good-hearted businesses to take their sales & marketing to the next level. Find out more here: how we help