“we need to learn new skills and behaviors because whatever got us into the crisis will not get us out” — Tom Morin
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Morin, Author and Speaker.
Tom was nearly killed twice at work, and then a third time trying to escape unfulfilling work: he was shelled in the former Yugoslavia, just missed being chopped in half on a drilling rig, and survived oxygen deprivation high on a mountain in Peru. His last brush with death forced him to critically examine his own working life and compelled him to help others do the same. Tom is an inspiring author and speaker on a mission to help leaders succeed in critical moments and everyone do their best work.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was born in Germany while my father was serving as a military police officer in the Canadian Air Force. That was during the cold war and the nuclear threat was something he and my mother lived with every day. I was three years old when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia and I remember my father telling me, “If something ever happens to your mother and I, you’ll need to take care of yourself.” That’s one of the most vivid memories I have of that time, and, when I look back on my childhood, I wonder if I was just waiting to begin working; begin taking care of myself.
When I was twelve, I wanted to get a summer job and when I asked my father for permission, he said, “You’re going to have to work for the rest of your life; enjoy your summer.” Of course, he was right. I got my first part-time job a year later and I joined the military as soon as I graduated high school. After eleven years in the military and twenty-four years in the corporate world, I completed graduate studies and began my consulting and coaching practice to help people create a more meaningful working life and help other leaders succeed in their most critical moments.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
In March, I released my first book about work, Your Best Work: Create the Working Life That’s Right for You. The book is based on what I learned from my own challenging and sometimes dangerous working life, and the process that has helped my clients discover and do their best work. Speaking to audiences about the book is incredibly rewarding. After one of my keynote presentations, a member of the audience said to me, “I feel like I finally have permission to love my job.”
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I joined the Canadian Army Cadets when I turned thirteen, the Army Reserve at seventeen, and the regular force at eighteen. I really wanted to be in the infantry, but my father convinced me to get a trade that might help in civilian life after I left the military. So, I enlisted as an electronics technician. But everyone in the Army is trained as a soldier first, and I was a lot better soldier and leader than I ever was a technician.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I learned a lot about teamwork, hard work, and adapting to change in the military, but one of the most important things I learned was how to develop leaders to perform their best when it matters most.
In 1993, I was deployed to what was then called the former Yugoslavia. Beginning in 1991 and lasting until 2001, there was a series of ethnically-based wars and insurgencies now known as the Yugoslav Wars. I was attached to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). We were part of the United Nations Protection Force and our role was to maintain peace in established safe zones and control borders. It was a dangerous mission, and on my tour we lost four soldiers. At no other time in my career was my training as a soldier-first so important. Although my primary role was to repair electronic equipment, once every two weeks I went on patrol with the infantry soldiers. We were always led by a Sargent, but because of my rank, Master Corporal, I was often the second in command (2IC) of the patrol. But, because I was a Tech, not a Grunt, I always felt like an outsider, but that changed during a night patrol.
That night, we stopped our APC on the outskirts of a burned-out town that still had a handful of people living in it. We were there to make sure no one was hiding weapons or making explosive devices. All the locals had been told to stay in their homes at night. The only people moving through the streets should have been us, and, possibly, any insurgents who we needed to keep out of the area.
We dismounted from the APC and began moving into the town. We moved carefully and quietly from house to house and saw nothing unusual and no one else. It was shaping up to be another routine patrol. Eventually we made it to the town square and the Sargent told me and a Private to take-up a position behind an old stone fence and watch the square while he and other Private did a roving patrol around the square. He said, “We’ll be back in fifteen minutes, and if you hear anything, come running.” Well, fifteen passed, but he didn’t come back. Then twenty minutes, then twenty-five. At thirty minutes, I stood up from behind the stone fence and looked through the optical sight of my rifle; at night, an optical sight gathers some light and you can see a little better. I was looking between the burned-out building across the square and hoping to the Sargent and the other Private. Then, when I looked down at my watch, the Private who was crouched with me behind the fence looked me straight in my eyes and asked, “Master Corporal, what do we do?” I’ve never felt more like a leader at any time in my life than I did in that moment. At that moment, for that infantry soldier, I was no longer an electronics technician: I was in command and I was ready. My years of training had prepared me, and I responded immediately.
I said, “We’re going back to the track (that’s what we called an APC). Stay five meters apart. Prepare to move.” Prepare to move, means get ready because, in a few seconds, we’re moving. Then, I said, “Move now,” and we started making our way back to the APC.
It was the right decision at the time since the Sargent had a radio and our only other radio was in the track. Also, if we had to go looking for the Sargent, I wanted us to be protected by the armored vehicle and have a 50-caliber machine gun rather than just our flak jackets and rifles. We made it back in about ten minutes and, standing beside the track, was the Sargent and other private. His plan had changed, and he knew he could count on me to make the right decision.
So why tell this story? Since no one can predict the next crisis, no one knows exactly what decisions they will need to make in the future. But we can train and develop leaders to perform their best when it matters most. No one does that better than the military, and one of the primary elements of military leadership development is often missing in the corporate world: mentoring new leaders in the critical scenarios unique to their organization. I tell my clients that their emerging leaders need less of me and more of them. You see, the military doesn’t farm-out leadership development to external service providers. Military leaders train future military leaders because they’ve succeeded and struggled in the roles that those future leaders will fill. I want to help my clients develop, what I call, a context-rich leadership training.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
During my tour, my battalion lost four soldiers and each one is a hero.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Each person lost in the service of their country or community — in service to someone else — is a hero. When we talk among ourselves, we seldom say “in the military.” Instead, we refer to it as “the service” or “when we served.” Heroism is achieved in-service to someone else.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
The military’s goal is to create military leaders, not business leaders. However, some of the behaviors that we develop in the military increase the probability of success in business: teamwork, hard work, and adapting to change.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
I define a crisis as a period of uncertainty during which we must change to survive, but if we can’t let go of our old ways, we’ll never be able to change.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
I’m not an expert in emergency management, so I can’t answer this question. I’m more comfortable answering the next question; it’s more personal.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
As I defined above, a crisis is a period of uncertainty during which we much change to survive; and, every moment that we don’t change, is one more moment of uncertainty and one more moment in which we might not survive. So, the first thing people should do is accept that if we don’t change, we won’t survive. Next, we need to learn new skills and behaviors because whatever got us into the crisis will not get us out.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Optimism and hard work. I don’t believe anyone can be a realist since no one can predict the future: you’re either hopeful or you’re paralyzed by depression. A true pessimist wouldn’t bother trying to change, but an optimist will. Then, it’s best to be the hardest working optimist.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My parents are hardworking optimists. Even in the darkest moments during the cold war, they saw hope in me and told me how to survive (see my answer to your first question for my childhood experience during the cold war in Europe). If they had been pessimists, they might have just looked at me and cried. Ernest Shackleton said, “Optimism is true moral courage.” My parents lived that, and I try to live it.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I’ve had big challenges, but each one propelled me forward by forcing me to change to survive; none set me back. Halfway through my military career, I quit to try to make it as a musician. When I failed, I desperately needed a job so I worked hard to get back in the military. When I left the military, the only job I could find was working on a drilling rig. That job paid 5 times what I was making in the military and I thought I was set for the rest of my life. One day, my supervisor accidentally released a large piece of equipment.
If I hadn’t jumped out of the way, I would have been chopped in half at the waist — sheared clean. When I quit that job, I thought I’d never find another one. But I decided to spend every cent I had on a college degree. The day after I graduated, I had an office in a downtown high-rise and my corporate career was off to a great start. But ten years into that job, I was bored and stressed-out, so I started climbing mountains. My first big climbing trip was in Peru. At 18,000 feet, I got high altitude cerebral edema and nearly died. I didn’t want to climb anymore.
That was a problem because work had already lost meaning and now my escape from work — climbing — lost meaning. I was close to falling into a deep depression, but instead I got curious about work, life, and death. That was the beginning of the career I have today: helping other leaders succeed in their own critical moments and helping as many people as I can create a more meaningful working life. I’ve haven’t had setback, and I never will; I’ve only had opportunities to change.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Accept that you will have to change to survive (see my definition of a crisis, above)
- Accept that you will have to work hard to survive (see my traits needed in a crisis and discussion of my parents, above)
- Choose to be optimistic (also see my traits needed in a crisis and discussion of my parents, above
- Begin learning new skills and behaviors (see my definition of a crisis, above)
- Choose to see all crisis as opportunity to propel you forward (see may answer to the previous question, above
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I define courage as contributing to well-being in the face of fear. During a crisis, it’s normal to be afraid, but it’s also the time when we have our greatest opportunity to contribute to well-being; to be courageous. It’s not only military members, law enforcement, first responders, and health care workers who need to be courageous in a crisis. Every job has the potential to contribute to well-being, so be courageous and contribute to well-being through your work.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Barak Obama and George W. Bush.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.