The other day, I was asked the question, “when times were tough running your business, what got you through it?” While the person didn’t explicitly say this, I implied that the “it” they were referring to was; worry, doubt, anguish, fear, or any other mental demon that lurks in the darkest corners of our minds.
The lowest point of my business career came while I was vacationing at the beach with my family. After spending the morning swimming in the ocean and playing in the sand with my 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, we had come back to the condo to get a break from the sun. Lying on my back and playing with my son, I saw my phone light up. It was a call from my business partner.
My first thought was, “this can’t be good, he knows I’m on vacation.” It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. I picked up the phone and heard…
“Hi Dan. A woman has just fallen and died at Lums Pond (our Delaware location).”
Having run one of the largest outdoor adventure businesses in the country, where we put people 40 feet up in the trees on ziplines and obstacles, risk was never far from my mind. As an industry leader in safety, we had robust risk management plans, policies, and procedures. We frequently trained for worst case scenarios. However, no amount of mental preparation can properly ready you for death.
After hearing the words from my business partner, I instantly knew this was a moment of reckoning. Then, fight or flight kicked in.
I had an incredible urge to run down to the beach, jump into the ocean, and swim as far as I could. If I made it to Portugal, fine. If I drowned to my death, better. I just wanted to get away from having to deal with anything related to someone accidentally disconnecting from our safety system and tragically falling to their death (what we latter found to be the case).
After taking a breath and deciding not to drown myself, I began to notice the ache in my stomach. It was as if someone had dropped a truckload of bricks on me. The weight became nearly unbearable. Now my breathing was focused on not vomiting all over the floor. My stomach would be this way for days and maybe weeks, tied up in agonizing knots.
Still holding back the urge to get sick, the following thoughts started to ravage my mind:
That poor person and their family.
Our business is over.
We are going to get sued for millions.
I don’t want my team to lose their jobs.
Will I go to jail?
F*ck, f*ck, f*ck, f*ck, F*CK!!!!!!!
As I hung up the phone, barely hearing anything my partner said after the words, “a woman has fallen and died at Lums Pond,” I looked at my son, who was still playing on the floor. He looked happy and peaceful. Seeing him was all the strength I needed.
I decided I was going to show him and my daughter (whether they could understand it or not), that I was someone who didn’t run away from their problems.
Still resisting the urge to drown myself, vomit, or run far away, I remember pulling myself together, telling my wife what had happened and then jumping in the shower to clean up and face whatever “monsters” were waiting for me. These proverbial monsters would be whatever manifestation my fear could create.
In reality, I would quickly leave the beach and it’s no longer relaxing confines to; support my team, deal with the press, talk to the police, call our insurance broker, communicate with our lawyers and do whatever else was necessary to navigate the worst occurrence any business can have at their operation.
Over the next couple of weeks, the fight, flight, or freeze experience I initially had upon hearing about the tragedy, would return. It would return when:
- I drove into the park where the incident happened
- I heard George Stephanopoulos, on Good Morning America, talking about what happened
- I prepared to address our entire company as to what had occurred
- I saw the front page of the USA Today with the headline, “Woman dies after 40-foot fall from zip line”
- I prepared to visit with employees who were first on the scene
- I wrote a letter of sincere condolence to the family of the person who lost their life
- I read an email from a former customer who said, “your company got what it deserved”
Each time fight or flight would kick-in, I made a conscious decision to continue. There was no Rocky music being played, no dramatics, just a desire to move forward and face whatever would come my way. In hindsight, the desire was hope. Hope that tomorrow would be better than today.
Eventually, that hope turned to reality.
Even though it seemed like years, a very long month after the accident, a sense of normalcy returned. The press stopped calling. Insurance and police reports would be concluded. Numerous safety checks administered. Staff professionally counseled. After satisfying all police, state, and national guidelines, the location would re-open and guests returned to our trees.
Through a collective team effort, our business got “through it” by following solid training, showing a lot of grit, and being professional. On a personal level, I got “through it” by not relinquishing hope.
I would be lying if I said that there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about this terrible accident. I don’t think about it often, because I don’t think there was anything exceptional that I had to endure. My job was to keep showing up. While I thought the sky was falling many times during that long and difficult month, the people who truly had to and still have to get “through it” are the family and friends of the person who died and the first responders who provided care and comfort to someone’s last moments of life.
While I believe I have been extremely lucky and fortunate in my business career, this was the most difficult period of time for me as a leader.
For anyone who finds themselves in the midst of a challenging time, I encourage you to keep looking for hope and keep showing up. It might sound overly simplistic, but in my experience, during times of turmoil, more complexity is the last thing you need.
Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.