Issue 1.7 | January 2010

In this Article: A world shaking event provokes reflection on the importance of what we do in business.

By Jonathan Wilson

On January 12th, 2010, the people of Haiti suffered devastation at the hands of a 7.0 Richter earthquake.  In one instant, their world fell apart.  I believe there is something of a call to both reflection and to action for us in this event, and not only to demonstrate solidarity with our fellow men and women by providing assistance as we can.  To explain this requires drawing you into a memory of mine …

The crisp morning air nipped my face I stared, groggily, at the disjointed cluster of leaves surrounding my field of vision.  It was August 1st, 1989, and my brother, Malcolm, and I were waking from our first night of uncomfortable sleep on a hunting trip with four friends from the Yali tribe in the high mountains of New Guinea.  Strangely, the surrounding rainforest which clung to the precipitous mountain wall (and was rich in wildlife) were completely quiet.  Malcolm slipped into the forest for an initial hunting foray while others of us prepared a quick breakfast.  He soon returned.  “There’s absolutely nothing out there,” he said.

A rainbow hung in the valley as we closed camp and decided to make our way home by traversing the steep mountain slope.  Still, no wildlife stirred.  As 9am approached, we negotiated a huge, mossy, fallen log that functioned as a bridge across a gash in the mountainside.  Suddenly a terrible rumbling roared up at us from deep in the earth below.  It came at us like a subterranean freight train, with awesome speed and with thunderous noise.  And then it hit.  The ground heaved under us and shook with terrifying power.  The thousands of trees around us jerked to-and-fro, their tall trunks completely under the sway of tectonic power.  Shortly a huge piece of mountainside came loose right next to us and roared down the slope, destroying all in its path, and its thunder was echoed by similar landslides triggering off from different points in the valley.  Trees fell.  Great tree branches, laden with foliage, crashed down from the heights.  The world was falling apart.  We crouched, paralyzed with fear, clinging to the violent surface of the earth’s crust and crying out in both prayer and desperate expletives.

The SAS Survival Handbook claims that, of all life-threatening experiences, an earthquake is the most terrifying, for there is little one can do to save oneself.  This was precisely the experience of millions of Haitians two weeks ago, except their vulnerability was not to a falling mountainside but to collapsing buildings.

When the earthquake subsided (and all the birds that had lain silent and hidden let loose in one great noise of squawking and screeching) we regrouped and decided to attempt a very dangerous escape route – down, through and out the other side of the valley, further into risk at first, but a direct route to home and help.  Any other route took us further into the wilderness.  We didn’t let up for one moment, our adrenaline surging with every after-shock or the roar of a fresh landslide.

Eventually we arrived in our village, covered in mud, bruises and cuts, but otherwise safe: to the news that friends of ours were missing, while hundreds were feared dead among the scattered thousands of tribes-people in a neighbouring valley.  It later emerged that these friends died on the same mountain even as we survived.

The earthquake did not simply shake our world, it shook my heart.  I lay awake that night, tensing with each after-shock, and reflected on my narrow escape from death.  Although I was only nineteen, I asked myself, if I had died today, what would my life have amounted to?  I think this is a fair question and a vital question, and one to ponder afresh in a moment like this.  If your world and my world were to fall apart, what legacy is left standing?  I think the same questions have to be levelled at our businesses.

Business Matters: But Does Your Business Matter?

After the 1989 earthquake in Papua, I helped in the relief and aid work.  The need was tremendous, because the local infrastructure (gardens, villages and connecting trails) were wiped out or dangerous.  Haiti also needs outside assistance (see below), but on a far greater scale, and for some time yet.

But making our lives matter is not demonstrated simply in our willingness to step up to the plate in times of disaster.  The ordinary day-to-day is where most of life happens, and business is all about making certain parts of peoples’ ordinary lives work well.  Business matters.

But does your business matter?  As I’ve said before, the soul of a company lies in what it cares most passionately about, what it does best that will bring that passion to reality, and the optimum way customers will demonstrate the value of that service (measured by profitability).  When the world falls apart, it provides us with an opportunity to ask ourselves if our business matters.  To this end, I leave you with some questions:

  • Does your business matter to your employees?  Are they willing to persevere through difficulties to achieve your company’s purpose?
  • Does it matter to your customers?  If your company were to disappear from the face of the earth today, would they miss you?

Only you can answer these questions, but if you would like help in your reflections, give me a call.

Another soul insight from

(Papua Earthquake, 1989.  Photo © John D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved).