Thoughts on Leadership: A Rescue to Remember

By Gino Blefari:

This week my travels found me on Coronado Island, California for the 2021 Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Summit Conference. One highlight of the conference was keynote speaker Jessica Buchanan, a former humanitarian worker turned bestselling author, who shared her story. Of course, the networking and seeing people in person was fantastic (the Global Conference and Meeting team does an incredible job each year), but Jessica’s talk had everyone in the room glued to their seats. It was extraordinary. The standing ovation she received at the end of her speech was undeniably deserved.

Blinded by the hot Somali sun, warmed by the head scarf wrapped around her forehead, Jessica remembers every detail of being in the Land Cruiser. It was October 2011, and she was in Somali teaching, helping children learn how to avoid land mines. It was a day like any other, until it wasn’t.

Suddenly, mud splashes up on the windshield of the car. Jessica hears the harsh crack of an AK47 and the gun is then put to her head, the same one warmed by her head scarf.

She doesn’t know who he is or what he wants. She doesn’t know why he’s now driving the car or where he’s going. She just doesn’t know.

Her head slams against the car window. Jessica knows that no matter what happens next, her life will never be the same again. She also knows this is bad, so bad there’s no frame of reference for how bad it could be.

Jessica became a Somali hostage that night, forced to sleep out in the open, given one can of tuna to eat each day. She spent hours under bushes and shrubs in a remote part of the Somali desert, attempting to shield herself from the scorching sun. She is no longer Jessica Buchanan, the 32-year-old humanitarian worker, the wife, the daughter. She is a hostage of Somali bandits, kept alive just enough for the negotiations to continue that put a $45 million ransom on her life.

Her job now? To survive.

Miraculously, instead of crumbling like some might in such dire circumstances, Jessica took this horror as an opportunity to reflect, to discover, to change.

“Change is the author of our stories,” she said. “If you think about it, no great story has ever come about without change.”

Sometimes, that change is welcomed, even initiated by our actions. Sometimes, that change chooses us.

Jessica also learned that change isn’t simply one chapter in the story of life. Change wants to become the entire book. It tries to rewrite your existence, but the way to fight against change is by taking command of how that story is told.

There are studies that show we become more resilient when we identify choice and autonomy during times of change. This means if we can find free will, no matter how slight, we can combat the ill effects of change.

In the desert, Jessica thought about how people travel around the world to “get away,” to “find themselves,” and how they might pay thousands of dollars for flights, hotels, or stays in remote huts. This was her chance to find herself, and the solitude of the desert landscape presented a unique opportunity for her to focus on controlling the change around her.

From this small thought, she identified a little bit of good amid the bad. She hurt a little less, she forgave a little more. She started planning and dreaming, and she dreamed about a time when her mom, who had passed away a year ago, took her to the movies. She imagined how the popcorn tasted, how sweet the soda was, how her mom’s teeth looked when she smiled.

Jessica started to set goals. The goals put her in charge.

It’s day 93. She’s been in the desert for more than three months, so sick with a kidney infection she can barely stand. She’s hallucinating from the pain. On this night, the moon doesn’t appear in the sky. The stars are especially bright. She had formed a habit of looking to the stars and praying to them, although she was really praying to her mom for help. On night 93, she did the same. She asked her mom to help her.

Jessica’s sleep was restless. She heard a rustling sound nearby. Moments later, the night exploded into bursts of gunfire. Jessica tucked herself into her blanket, trying to be as small as possible, trying to disappear. She was terrified.

She hears a voice, bright and clear, and words spoken with an American accent: her name. “Jessica, Jessica. We’re the American military. You’re safe now. We’re gonna take you home.”

What Jessica didn’t know when she was planning and dreaming and contemplating the life-altering effects of change is that the American government, and even President Obama, knew where she was and had been designing an escape. The men who rescued her were from SEAL Team Six, and they risked their lives to save her own.

So, what’s the message? When you aren’t changing, you aren’t living, says Jessica. Every element of nature, of our existence, of anything that ever happens shows that change is essential to life. It took Jessica 93 harrowing days in the desert to trust change would lead her to a higher purpose, and 93 days to tell change that in this story, she decides how it ends.

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