Lava Leadership: Lessons learned from a volcanic crucible

Leadership is the alchemy that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. My gripping “lead to gold” story’s vivid images will transport you to the heart of a leadership conundrum. A mountain called “Pinatubo” (Tagalog for “to have made grow”) gifted me with a bulletproof leadership method: COACH (Creativity, Openness, Adaptability, Communication, and Humanity). The COACH approach allows seamless adjustments to diverse challenges in our dynamically evolving world. At the end of Lava Leadership, challenge your team with a transformational exercise.

Award-winning Los Angeles Times writer, author, broadcaster turned The Manila Time’s storied columnist, David Haldane penned a perilous account of my unique leadership circumstance during the June 1991 cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. David interviewed me for almost two hours — -Coordinating a Philippines to San Francisco interview opened a time portal. In retrospect, David’s June 17, 2024 column: On God’s Orders: The Eruption Of Mount Pinatubo transcends me into a modern variation of “Pliny of Pinatubo” with just as many of the classic’s lessons. Dear reader, after resurrecting ourselves from the ash, we will dive deep into COACH.

First, let’s jump into David’s piece :

“It was almost Biblical.

First came the earthquake, one of the most powerful the Philippines had ever seen. Then, almost simultaneously, Typhoon Diding and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo killed more than 800 people, wiping out Luzon’s Clark Air Base in the process. And finally, just three months later, came the coup de grace; the Philippine Senate sent the US military packing after a presence of almost 90 years.

“I think of it every day,” Mark R. Clifford, 59, says of the June 15, 1991, volcanic eruption that just turned 33. “It’s the kind of experience that makes you believe in life after death.”

Back then, Clifford was a 26-year-old US Marine from San Francisco, California, stationed near Subic Bay to provide protection from the communist National People’s Army. Suddenly, on Philippine Independence Day, a superior officer called to alert him and the 19 marines he was commanding of an impending danger.

It wasn’t on my radar at all,” Clifford recalls. “I looked up and saw this huge white cloud like somebody had spilled milk across the blue tropical sky.” Before long, he says, “ash was covering our uniforms and we could barely breathe.”

By the time the main eruption occurred a few days later, Clifford and his men were hunkered down in a Quonset hut: a small, prefabricated metal shelter. “The eruption turned the sky black for more than 24 hours,” he remembers. “The ash was so heavy it defoliated the jungle around us. We were being buried alive, preparing for death and we knew it.”

Despite being a brash young man sequestered with others of the same ilk, Clifford prayed. “It was like sitting atop the gallows,” he says, “just riding out the blackness. I remember lying in my rack, thinking of my fiancé back home who I thought would never see me again. Then it stopped.”

Glad to be alive, the men dug their way out through the hot ash, singeing their fingers as they did. Then remained in the Philippines for several weeks to help Filipinos deal with the aftermath.

Clifford eventually left the military, returned to Northern California, married the fiancé whose image had sustained him, enjoyed a long career in law enforcement, and raised two boys and a girl. But he never forgot that day of darkness in the Philippines.

“I died in that Quonset hut,” he told me shortly before the anniversary of the cataclysmic event that shaped the country’s future. “When you have lots of time to review your life, it causes a spiritual awakening. When I went to sleep that night, I was at peace believing I would never wake up.”

In 2020, the same year he retired as a police sergeant, Clifford published Typhoon Coast, a novel inspired by his near-death experience in the shadow of Mt. Pinatubo. “There is a mix of magic and mystery that…hold[s] the story together,” one reviewer wrote. The book “is an excellent psychological journey.”

Later the budding novelist described the experience further in a published short story . “Pinatubo’s eruption brings darkness as we trudge through the streets of Olongapo,” Clifford wrote. “Olongapo is why God invented purgatory. Under the volcano’s gauntlet, I hear Tagalog cries and shouts. I imagine they are prayers for help, wishes for death. Silent was the music that blared from bustling strip bars. The ash is too thick to smell the wafts of sewage that once mixed with the barbecue smoke…The jungle cracks under the weight of Pinatubo’s eruption.”

Clifford has never returned to the Philippines, a situation he intends to remedy soon. “I have to go back,” he says. “It’s a non-issue, I don’t have a choice.”

One of his main goals is to scale Mt. Pinatubo. “It will finally give me some closure,” the former Marine explains.

Just as it did for the Philippines so many decades ago.”

Lava Leadership: Lessons learned from a volcanic crucible 1

(Me back home wearing my survivor t-shirt).

The eruption of Mount Pinatubo is an exclamation point in Earth’s geological journal. Like Montezuma, Pinatubo’s Revenge was an explosive case of post-traumatic stress . David honored my story, but he couldn’t fit our entire conversation into his column. The powers that be had numerous opportunities to fumble in June 1991, like a juggler with too many balls in the air. Here is COACH (Creativity, Openness, Adaptability, Communication, and Humanity) in action. I often ask myself why we don’t celebrate the commanding brilliance of this historical event.

During June 1991, I served under the lush green canopy outside Subic Bay Naval Air Station. U.S. forces were coming home from a historic victory in Desert Storm. The Marines expected a grueling war to last for years. Our role ended in a hundred hours. I was now assigned to the Third Marine Division. I was accountable for the lives of nineteen Marines.

I learned about the customs and rich history in this wonderful nation of 7,641 islands, and just as many spectacles that most Americans will never know. But now the Philippines faced a unique and devastating foe: Mount Pinatubo, a dormant volcano on the island of Luzon. I have written much inspired by this ordeal to include a novel, short fiction and references in blog posts. I often talk of its profound impact on my life on my podcast. I will now delve into the gripping narrative of the lifelong burden of survival and shepherding my unit through the cataclysmic eruption.

Pliny’s final words before perishing beneath Vesuvius was “Fortes fortuna iuvat” (Fortune favors the bold). Before the eruption, life on Luzon was routine. Sailors and Marines spent tours readying, and protecting our historic base, as well as enjoying our relations with the Filipino people in the surrounding villages and cities. We didn’t know that our lives were to be forever changed. On the fateful day of June 12, 1991, Mount Pinatubo quietly erupts. Unbeknownst to me, volcanologists were monitoring the 5,000-foot summit. Command felt it prudent to evacuate Clark Air Force Base to Subic. This was known as Operation Fiery Vigil and will be credited for saving thousands of lives in one of America’s largest Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEOP) that boasted an armada of 22 Navy ships rescuing 20,000 lives. Sadly, Pinatubo will displace 1.2 million people, but Operation Fiery Vigil will save 250,000 from imminent death. What we didn’t know was that Pinatubo would be the second largest volcanic eruption of the century, killing almost 1,000 outright. Thousands more will later be swept to their deaths in rivers of ash, mud, and rock (lahars). Pinatubo will become the largest eruption in a densely populated area. For creativity, openness, adaptability, communication, and humanity is essential for survival. If you were to study my Stoic mind in 1991, you would see the creed that guided my moral compass through the ordeal:

Staff Non-Commissioned Officer’s Creed

I am a Staff Non-Commissioned Officer in the
United States Marine Corps.

As such, I am a member of the most unique group of professional military practitioners in the world.

I am bound by duty to God, Country, and my fellow Marines to execute the demands of my position to and beyond what I believe to be the limits of my capabilities.

I realize I am the mainstay of Marine Corps discipline, and I carry myself with military grace, unbowed by the weight of command, unflinching in the execution of lawful orders, and unswerving in my dedication to the most complete success of my assigned mission.

Both my professional and personal demeanor shall be such that I may take pride if my juniors emulate me, and knowing perfection to lie beyond the grasp of any mortal hand, I shall yet strive to attain perfection that I may ever be aware of my needs and capabilities to improve myself.

I shall be fair in my personal relations, just in the enforcement of discipline, true to myself and my fellow Marines, and equitable in my dealing with every man.

Lava Leadership: Lessons learned from a volcanic crucible 2

I received orders, due to the immense milk white ash cloud lofting in the heavens, for my unit to return to our quarters in Upper MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force). Villagers’ faces were coated with ash, their eyes filled with worry. It haunts me to this day wondering if our friends perished. Nothing can prepare you for the leadership required during the unthinkable. We stocked our Quonset hut with water and Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). On June 15th, the major eruption unleashed its violent fury upon the Earth. Pinatubo had slept for 600 years. The violent eruption vaporized 500 feet of its summit, sending debris 28 miles into the atmosphere. A massive cloud of ash and debris engulfed the surrounding landscape, turning day into eerie night. Constant earthquakes. A typhoon hit Luzon turning the ash to cement that washed away bridges for 18 miles.

As the earth convulsed and the sky darkened, my Marines found themselves in a fight for their lives. The concussion of the weight of ash defoliating the jungle was like constant machine gun fire. Amidst the chaos and confusion, our refuge quickly turned into a tomb as tons of ash and debris poured down upon us, burying us alive. Trapped beneath the suffocating weight, we fought against despair, struggling to survive in the dark. Pinatubo robbed Marines of their legendary fighting spirit. We huddled inside our tiny Quonset hut as the ash pummeled the canopy outside. The ravage was deafening. Darkness was suffocating, and I was acutely aware of the weight of the ash pile above us. We were buried alive with no end in sight. As I waited for what seemed like days, I reflected on my life. I thought about all the things I planned to accomplish: family, life beyond the Corps, and all the things I had yet to do. I thought about the people back home, the people I had lost, my fiancé. I wondered if they would remember me? Will they excavate my remains like Pliny in Pompeii? At that moment, the thought struck me that this might be the end. I had always imagined that my life would end in a more peaceful or meaningful way. But here I was, trapped, with no possibility of escape. I accepted my fate.

Outside, the eruption spewed ash, gas, and rock high into the atmosphere, relentless earthquakes, triggering lahars, and pyroclastic flows. After what seemed like an eternity, there was silence. We dug ourselves out. Burning our hands on the hot ash. Physically, we were battered, but the true scars ran much deeper. We had witnessed the raw power of nature and stared death in the face.

The taste of ash leaves a gritty sensation on the tongue. Surprisingly, my Pinatubo story did not end at our burrow. Due to our advanced climbing skills we were tasked to scale to the menacing roof of an eighty-foot high aircraft hanger to free the doors frozen shut by the heavy wet ash. Our forces urgently needed the trapped helicopters to deter the NPA guerillas that were exploiting the chaos. The Corps was desperate to mount a base defense. The eruption had devastated our land, sea, and air readiness. I told the Commander that the task was too dangerous. And, as anticipated, the structure collapsed. I heard their screams. I saw their twisted bodies. I felt the tragedy was my fault. Mission comes before troop welfare in the Marines. I accomplished the mission. The sinister swipes of helicopter blades chopping through the sky probably saved many lives.

The cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 woke something within me that only the heart of a survivor knows. From the haunting moments of being buried alive, it serves as a reminder of the resilience of a Marine’s fighting spirit and the imperative of supporting those who bear the invisible scars of such traumatic events.

Venn Diagram

Leadership isn’t about mere survival — — It’s about thriving in the face of change. So, how do we put boots on COACH? Notice where each illustrated problems overlap in the Venn Diagram. COACH is the common solution.

1. Creativity: Encourage innovative thinking and out-of-the-box solutions. In unconventional situations, creativity often leads to breakthroughs.

2. Openness: Build trust within your community. Openness fosters collaboration and resilience, especially during challenging times.

3. Adaptability: Be flexible and open-minded. Unpredictable scenarios require leaders to adjust their strategies swiftly.

4. Communication: Effective communication is crucial. Leaders should convey clear instructions, listen actively, and maintain transparency.

5. Humanity: Remember the human element. Whether in military operations, family dynamics, social interactions, or business decisions, empathy and compassion matter.

1. Military Scenarios:

– Asymmetrical Warfare: Facing an adversary with vastly different resources or tactics.

– Behind Enemy Lines: Operating covertly in hostile territory.

– Unconventional Weapons: Dealing with unconventional threats like cyberattacks or biological agents.

2. Family and Personal Life:

– Unexpected Loss: Coping with sudden bereavement or life-altering events.

– Blended Families: Navigating relationships in non-traditional family structures.

– Parenting Challenges: Raising children with unique needs or circumstances.

3. Social Situations:

– Cultural Misunderstandings: Interacting with people from diverse backgrounds.

– Social Stigma: Overcoming biases or societal norms.

– Disaster Response: Coordinating relief efforts during both natural and man-made calamities.

4. Business and Leadership:

– Startups: Launching a business with limited resources.

– Market Disruptions: Adapting to rapidly changing industries.

– Remote Work: Leading teams across different time zones and cultures.

In conclusion, echoes of Pinatubo reverberate. As the mountain’s name infers “to have made grow”. I grew as a lifelong learner of leadership. Unconventional circumstances require creative problem-solving and adaptability. Situations are not as unique as you think. Remember to review COACH in a crisis, because over analysis equals paralysis.

COACH Exercise. Lead a guided discussion:

Pick a crisis and use COACH to inspire conversations that bring order to chaos.

1. Communication Strategies: How can leaders effectively communicate with supporting recourses? What role does timely information play in decision-making?

2. Preparedness and Planning: How can pre-existing practices minimize confusion?

3. Managing Expertise: What strategies ensure that expertise is available when needed?

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