Since October, last year, a friend of mine and I have been delivering a rolling leadership development programme, every quarter, to two teams at a micro-finance bank.
I love every minute of it, and it is my privilege to help business-minded people become even better at what they do.
Our most recent trip took place last month and it was a bit different to all the other trips we have taken. For me at least, it was more like an adventure in Albania.
I arrived late on Saturday night as my usual Sunday afternoon flight had sold out.
One of the bank’s drivers, Ershan, met me at the airport and off we went for the usually half hour drive to the hotel in central Tirana.
On this occasion however, once we arrived near the outskirts of the hotel, there were police roadblocks, lots of noise, and people wandering around in a not very organised fashion. By the time we got to the hotel, it was way after midnight and the journey had taken twice as long as normal.
The hotel we tend to stay in is situated right in the middle of the part of Tirana that contains all the government buildings. What I did not know until the following day was that there had been anti-government protests raging since February and another major march was planned for the coming Monday night.
I was given strict instructions to not leave the hotel under any circumstances, as the march could turn violent as people were becoming increasingly angry with the government as the Prime Minister, Edi Rama, faced accusations of corruption.
On previous trips, I have walked from the office back to the hotel and it takes about twenty minutes. It’s a pleasant walk, and I love taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a very different, foreign city. Walking back today was not an option. Plus, the rain was relentless.
I got into the car and we set off for the hotel.
The driver, Baksha, is a pretty old man I would say but very alert and as it turned out, very fit. He was becoming increasingly frustrated with the road blocks, hindering the normally straightforward journey to the hotel.
Then I saw something I have never seen before in all my various travels.
A man was riding a bicycle but because of the rain, he had one hand on the handle bars while his other hand held on to an umbrella! Then I saw another man and another. Clearly, this is something they do in Albania.
(This is another man on a bike with an umbrella, taken while I was eating some lunch. It’s actually a screenshot from a video I made – hence the poor quality!)
We went round and round the various blocks, trying to find a sides street that wasn’t blocked.
Eventually, I suggested to the driver that he drop me off anywhere and I would happily walk. I had a rough idea which direction I needed to go in. He nodded but I had no idea how much he understood my walking fingers.
He found a car park and then got out with me. I tried to explain that I would be fine.
He was having none of it. He took off in front of me and I had to walk very fast just to keep up. The main roads were deserted – due to the roadblocks and the impending protest march coming down them I imagined. The rain was cascading down and bouncing off the retail awnings but he wasn’t interested in getting even a minor bit of cover under the new but admittedly, small umbrella I’d only bought the day before.
We passed some familiar cafes and I once again, said I would be fine from here but no. I was beginning to realise he must be under strict instructions to deliver me right to the door of the hotel.
We came to the government buildings that had black marks all over them, where Molotov cocktails had been thrown on the Saturday night, when I had struggled to get to the hotel. TV crews were everywhere, with their OB (outside broadcast) vans strewn with cables and booms all over the place. We went round the corner and the driver turned to look at me with a big smile and said, “Hotel!”
“Thank you so much!” I said. It is a very humbling thing when you want to express genuine gratitude but are severely restricted by a language barrier.
I hadn’t realised quite how close my hotel was to all the action. It was literally about thirty yards from where the march would be commencing.
Later that evening, all I could hear were the loud hailers no doubt condemning the Prime Minister for his alleged crimes. Firecrackers kept going off. At least I hoped they were firecrackers and not gunfire. I’ve been within close earshot of gunfire before in my life but that is another story.
We delivered the workshops later in the week at a different hotel in the coastal town of Durres, which was lovely. Amongst other things, we taught them the importance of story-telling as leaders. I modelled this for them, revealing some very personal things about me that none of them knew. I wanted to demonstrate that vulnerability is a strength – when the time and place is right.
After they had been given some time to prepare, they followed suit. They were honest, vulnerable but triumphant in the midst of what could easily have been written off as tragedy for some of them. There were some tears, laughs and by the end of the two days, my friend and I were emotionally exhausted.
The two teams had bonded like never before and loved the challenge. We had loved facilitating a safe environment and I don’t mean simply away from the protests of Tirana.
It was a wonderful time. The sun even came out for us during those two days in Durres, where before it had been as rainy as elsewhere. We shared a drink on the terrace at the end of the day and I took a moment to reflect on how very fortunate I am to meet and work with the wonderful people of Albania.