Corporate Counsel’s chief editor asked me to write about yesterday in Brussels. I’ve spent significant time in Brussels for 20+ years, and for the past five this city has been my base for consulting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I have family here and speak French. Our home is at the edge of the south city limits and I know the place well. At 815 Tuesday morning March 22nd I learned by phone that two bombs had exploded at Zaventem, the international airport. “Are you all right?” Helena Samaha asked in her calm slightly Lebanese accent from her London kitchen. I’ve known Helena since she was General Counsel at Virgin, then partner at DLA, and now back in London after 4 years as a legal chief for OSN in Dubai. We saw each other 10 days ago in Paris.
I confirmed that everyone was okay, checked online, and from then on we began to see the story unravel. The shocking human cost of the attacks; the horror, the hate and the continuing grave danger. I felt calmer by repeating to myself: breathe in peace, breath out compassion.
We all have stories about how we feel and what could have been. I should have been in the international terminal for a flight today, luckily not yesterday. Yesterday I remembered what Sabine Chalmers (GC, AB-InBev) told me a while back when we talked about the ‘crisis as usual’ syndrome in business. Her criteria for a bona fide crisis has stuck with me: “Did anyone die?” In a nano-second, the death of innocent people drastically separated Brussels on March 22nd from a corporate crisis (as did Paris in November).
Intermittently working and web searching through nearly 4 hours of exasperating phone hold to change flights, something happened. Virtual hugs poured in from family, friends and business colleagues everywhere—and they continue today. Like a global chain of light, those voices reached out to me from all corners of the earth, proclaiming the positive force of good will.
A non-American former legal chief and global security head texted me, “Thank God you and your family are all right. I’m so close to all of you there; each time those evils hit someone it’s like they hit my people, my friends.” A Europe-based law firm marketer friend wrote from Chicago, “You were the first person I thought of when I saw the news this morning. Take care, be safe.” I was showered with ‘you okay?’ emails, texts, FB and LinkedIn comments. I was moved by that extraordinary proof of my place in a caring international community.
The messages mirrored what I have been thinking about Brussels: there are many good people in this city— Flemish, Wallon, Arab, African, Baltic, from all over Europe and beyond. By doing good and striving to treat others fairly, I believe we will overcome the bad guys. We must not despair; there is work to do.
Yesterday it seemed ironic that I had just written a Global In-House column addressing how to deal with uncertainty in emerging markets. Who would have thought that I’d so soon be tested, right in my own comfortable Western European old-country backyard?
For the first 14 hours after news of the Brussels attacks, I failed that test. An active and by most measures successful international business professional, I was determined to stay on track and get things done. It was futile. I finally had to recognize that the only certainty in our lives in Brussels, for at least a few days, is: no certainty and no predictability. We can live with that.