Seth Kahan
Author, consultant

Seth Kahan

Change expert and author who has advised executives in 50-plus organizations, including Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps and NASA. He can be reached at


All changed, changed utterly

Q: Success stories don't get any better than the recent rescue of 33 miners in Chile who were trapped for 68 days. One miner said he now saw the world in a whole new way. Do you think that feeling will last? Have you ever had an experience, small or large, that changed the way you think about life? If so, how has your life changed since, and are you glad for it?

Yes, the feeling will last. This is the kind of experience that fundamentally reorders the being of the participant. This reordering takes place physically, not just conceptually. This person will never return to the state they were in before.

I have had a number of experiences that changed me through and through -- most of them very difficult and challenging. One that comes to mind was the experience of going through 9/11. I worked at the World Bank at the time and was on the team responsible for liaising with our president and the Treasury Department. At that time it was Treasury that coordinated on-the-ground responses to crises in downtown D.C.

I remember coming to work that beautiful fall day. A colleague caught me in the lobby and told me a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I mused something to the effect that it must have been an accident. I thought it was a small plane.

When I got to my office there was chaos. I worked on the newly formed Internal Communications team. Our television sets had not yet arrived and the Internet was unresponsive due to overload. There were reports of the first tower collapsing. I called my wife, who held the phone up to our TV at home so I could hear the news as it came in. Every so often she interrupted with pleas to "Come home now!"

I stayed at my desk and the reports intensified. We were fielding rumors. One that proved untrue was that the State Department had been hit by a bomb. We occasionally ran across the hall, where we could look out the window and see the smoke rising from the Pentagon where the plane had crashed into it.

There was fear the Bank would be a target, as would any major building in downtown D.C. Under the direction of our director, I hand-typed the message into the system that interrupted Washington D.C. employees at their desktops and told them to leave the building.

Eventually, a decision was made for some of the members of our team to go home. Our intern was selected because she was youngest and I was selected because I had the youngest child at home. I left my vehicle in the garage and escorted our intern to her apartment in Georgetown on foot. The streets of downtown DC were a mess. Gridlock. People everywhere. Metro closed. Someone on the street told me to hide my World Bank ID card. Paranoia was present.

After I saw her safely to her home, I began the four-hour walk to my home. On the way, an Indian gentleman asked me how to get out of town. That depends on where you want to go, I said. He said, Anywhere!

I asked, Do you want to go to California or New York? His response, California. I gave him the directions to Route 66 West. Then I asked him if I could have a ride. He turned to his wife who looked at me and said, No. He told me, She is afraid. I had long, dark hair then and a beard. It was my first encounter with the fear that would grow in the weeks ahead and is still part of our day-to-day lives, though not as strong as it once was.

As soon as I began to walk, I was glad they did not give me a ride because I left them far behind. They were stuck in the endless traffic jam. I easily outpaced them on foot.

Most of my walk was along the Capitol Crescent Trail, which was surreal. I left the crazy city behind and was suddenly surrounded by the beauty of nature and quiet peacefulness -- the airplanes had been grounded. There was no noise other than nature. There were very few people that I encountered along the way. It was as if I was the only person in the world, which was unsettling given the atmosphere of siege I left behind.

Early the next morning, with everyone stunned and grief-stricken, our World Bank team went into huddle and decided that in 48 hours, on Friday, Sept. 14, we would have an all-staff gathering. The purpose was to bring people together, reminding them of the community they belonged to in a time of anguish. We would openly acknowledge the grief in our hearts, giving it a home inside the organization. We were doing our best to set our sights on the uncertain, difficult road toward healing and the new world we were tumbling into.

That Friday, with short notice, we brought about 2,000 people into our atrium for a 20-minute gathering. Our president, Jim Wolfensohn, requested live music, Bach's Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 in G-Major, Sarabande. It is a powerfully moving piece: introspective, complex, and emotionally intimate.

Wolfensohn characteristically delivered his words straight from the heart. He asked staff members to join hands, which had never been done before. Then he asked for a minute of silence in remembrance. Open weeping could be heard in the large, silent atrium. The event was as stirring as it was profound -- and a marked departure from the dispassionate and efficient communications of the past.

I wil never be the same. My world was reordered. My neural pathways forever changed.

In answer to the question above, I could never be glad for this. Nonetheless, it is now part of my identity. I am immensely proud of the many forthright responses I participated in: the struggle to operate a communications team in the midst of chaos, issuing the directive to evacuate our building, escorting the intern safely to her home, organizing and conducting the all staff gathering. In retrospect, I am grateful to have been a witness to history with a front-row seat.

But I would never ask for such an ordeal. I imagine the miners are undergoing something similar, though their resolution surely must be grounded in the joy of their safe return.

By Seth Kahan  |  October 25, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and adversity Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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