How I used leadership and organizational development skills to survive four nights at a haunted hotel

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[Image description: Closeup of a brown puppy, snuggled in a checked grey-white-pink-black blanket. The puppy has nothing to do with this post. I just didn’t want to look at pictures of scary things to find a relevant image. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Right away, I could tell that the hotel was haunted. Or just really old. The elevator would occasionally bring me to the basement when I pushed the button for the third floor. Sometimes, it would stop on the second floor, and the door would open, but no one would be there. On the first night, the light outside the bathroom turned on at 5am. Since it was motion-activated, I didn’t think much of it, because these sensors can often be overly sensitive. On the second night, it did it again.

I was in Oakland for the Art of Transformational Consulting, a training led by the legendary Robert Gass of the Social Transformation Project. (Thank you, Haas Jr. Fund for sponsoring my participation). It was an intense one-week program, where the days often went from 9am to 9pm. During these hours, I and 29 other participants, mostly consultants or nonprofit leaders, learned from Robert and from one another. We examined the deepest corners of ourselves, we analyzed case studies, we worked in pairs and triads and groups and sat in large circles. I was constantly pushed out of my comfort zone, encouraged to do things that I never thought I was capable of: Meditate, communicate without words, exercise.

After 12 hours of that, I would return to my room to recharge. But there was never any recharging. Maybe the room wasn’t haunted. Maybe it was just electrical problems. Whatever it was, by the third night, I was dreading coming back to my chamber. The second time the light turned on at 5am, I decided to take out the light bulb, since there was no way to turn off the motion detection. Using a dry towel, I took out the swirly bulb. Immediately I felt this chill all over my body. An unpleasant, tingling sensation that grew more intense. Someone or something didn’t want me to do that. I put the bulb back in, and the feeling began to dissipate. I looked at the small, empty room. It was cold, a curtain billowing from the open window. I thought about leaving, maybe crashing with a local colleague.

But it was 11pm, and more importantly, I was not going to let some ghost drive me out of my room! I have faced more challenging circumstances. A haunted room is nothing compared to not being able to meet payroll, or having to fire someone, or being laughed at by a major donor. Or doing an exercise that involved communicating one’s purpose statement without using any words but rather physical motions and yelling! I decided then to use this opportunity to practice the skills I had learned in my training.

We had just done two hours of work around the power of intuition. This is a skill and a tool that leaders all have, but we ignore it all the time, because we are trained to rationalize and intellectualize. Sometimes the answers are within us, if we just remain still enough to listen. My intuition told me that I was trying to do Systems/Structure work, when I should be doing more Hearts and Mind.

According to the Wheel of Change model that we had learned, there are three main elements involved in change work: Hearts and Minds, Behaviors, and Structures. To be effective, we must focus on all three levels, at the right time. Often, leaders focus too much on Behaviors (“let’s do more 360 evaluations!”) or Structures (“Let’s hire a Deputy Director!”) when the organization needs to first resolve personal and interpersonal dynamics.

By removing the light bulb first, I had made the mistake that too many leaders make, focusing too much on the technical, and it probably pissed off the ghost in my room, if there was one. What I needed to do was work on Hearts and Minds, maybe through a Courageous Conversation. This is an important skill that all of us need to be better at. We are so good at avoiding having honest conversations with one another. We often go and complain to other people or do other unproductive things instead of just meeting with someone and working things out. We had practiced how to do this, so now I figured I would have a Courageous conversation with the ghost in my room. 

To do this well, I combined it with something else I learned: POP, which stands for Purpose, Outcomes, Process. This is a very simple and useful planning tool (developed by Leslie Jaffe and Randall Alford) that works for many situations to help leaders be more effective and productive. It works for meetings, retreats, projects, presentation, etc., and, I hoped, conversations with hotel ghosts.

“What’s my purpose for this Courageous Conversation?” I asked myself. It’s to get the spirit to get to know me and to believe that I am not a threat, and to ask it to modify its behavior. “What was a tangible Outcome?” For the spirit not to turn the lights on at 5am. “What was the process?” I was going to speak out loud, maybe starting with some information about myself, followed by a request.

“Hi,” I said to the empty, silent room, “if there are any spirits here, my name is Vu. I work for a nonprofit.” The room exuded a cold and strange energy; but maybe it was just me.

“I am here for a training,” I continued, feeling a little silly, “I really just want to sleep. I hope we can get along. Would you mind not turning on the light at 5am just so I can sleep till 7? Thank you so much. “

“Uh,” I added, “um, but if you need to do that at 5am, I’ll understand. Thank you. Good night.”

Dammit! That was a crappy courageous conversation. That was not courageous at all! Why did I add the “if you need to do that at 5am, I’ll understand” BS?! If I were a poltergeist and some wuss is all like “please don’t haunt me, but if you do, it’s OK,” I’d laugh in their flesh-bag face and maybe knock over the coffee-maker.

I got into bed and turned on the reading lamp. It was going to be difficult to sleep, so I used some new concepts and skills I learned: Personal Practices. There are various things each of us can do to “center” ourselves and control our energy, especially during moments of high anxiety. This was something that I am not very good at, I learned this week. I scanned my body and realized I was barely breathing. I took several deep breaths. Then I watched an episode of Flight of the Conchords on Prime Video. It’s a hilarious show about two musicians from New Zealand trying to make it in the US. I needed to distract myself. I turned off the reading lamp, then closed my eyes and imagined an energy field around myself. I imagined it expanding larger and larger to encompass the entire room, and I fell asleep.

At 3am, the hallway light turned on. I was instantly awake. I walked to the light switch, but then decided not to turn it off, lest I get into a showdown with…someone. On the way back to bed I crossed a mirror. In the hazy dream state I saw a face. It was pale, its eyes sunken. It was terrifying. But it was just my face, the wrinkled, pallid visage common among executive directors. I turned on the reading lamp and kept it on the rest of the night, having fitful, uneven sleep. The hallway lamp would turn on and off intermittently. I was not sure I could endure two more nights of this.

On the fourth day, we were deep into the training. Having done a lot of personal work, we were now learning more technical skills such as assessment, evaluation, contracting, coaching, etc. we ended training earlier than usual. Normally I would be excited to get some downtime, but I was starting to become more anxious at the encroaching darkness that would necessitate my going back to my hotel. I questioned if maybe this was all just in my head. There is a common mistake leaders make: not doing enough assessment, especially not getting enough information from external sources. We often shape our thoughts and make decisions without checking in with colleagues in the field, or our loved ones, or most importantly, the people our decisions would most greatly affect.

Deciding to do some assessment to be more objective, I walked up to the registration desk. “So,” I asked the middle-aged clerk working there, “is this hotel haunted?” He looked quizzical. “My lights keep turning on and off throughout the night. Do you maybe have some electrical wiring problems? Have other guests reported anything?” He chuckled. “No, we’ve never had any issues,” he said.  I said, “Whether it’s haunted or not, can I transfer room?” He said everything was booked.

I walked into my room, feeling a mounting sense of dread. A colleague had offered to pick me up and let me crash on her couch. It was tempting, but it would mean the room won, and I was not going to let that happen. When I walked in, the hallway light turned on. I turned it off, then grabbed a dry towel and started unscrewing the lightbulb. A chill came over me, like the last time I did this, but this time I didn’t put the bulb back.

“Listen!” I said out loud, “I really need to sleep tonight. I’m sorry if this bothers you, but I can’t have this light turning on while I’m sleeping! I will put it back tomorrow, I promise, OK?! Please try to be understanding! Thank you!” This conversation was more courageous than the previous one.  

The room felt more peaceful, as if the ghost and I had come to an agreement. Maybe we could coexist and I could finally get some sleep after three horrible nights of random lights turning on and off, not to mention the weird dreams that the situation was inducing. As I lay in bed in the glow of the reading lamp, I remembered an activity we did during the training to build empathy. So often, we forget that the people around us, especially the ones we have issues with, are also struggling to make the world better. They too are human beings who have hopes and dreams, who have known loss and disappointment. They too have people who love them, who would miss them when they are gone. They too feel joy and pain and uncertainty and sadness.

I turned my thoughts to the spirit haunting my room. If there was a spirit, then it would have been someone who used to be alive; who was once a baby, once held, read to, cuddled with, cared about. Someone who was once loved and who may now be missed; maybe who still loved and yearned, and that’s why they continue to remain there. I imagined what it might be like to be a ghost trapped inside a hotel room, unable to move on, forced to endure whatever Netflix shows guests are watching, never getting to finish a season of anything. Maybe the ghost was desperately trying to tell me something, and I just couldn’t hear. How many times do the living people around us try to tell us things that we do not hear?

In this state of empathy for whatever ghost was in the room, I turned off my reading lamp. The hallway light bulb was removed now, so there was no way for this light to turn on. I felt that for once, I should be able to get a good night’s sleep. I was still feeling some fear, but I had learned a new skill involving acknowledging existing negative feelings and thoughts, but not letting them control me. I recognized I was still somewhat afraid, but with the empathy I now felt for the spirit, I would be able to settle my mind and deal with whatever came next.

I also tried another skill: reframing. This experience had tested me. I faced down something that was very scary, or at least extremely annoying. I practiced skills I had learned throughout the week. And I got an awesome story out of it! The empathy and reframing transformed the energy within myself, and that transformed the energy in the room. I quickly fell asleep.

At 4:26am the reading lamp turned on all by itself. I’m not kidding. “F#@!” I said, using a leadership technique that many leaders in the training program deployed: Strategic cussing. By now I was less scared and more irritated. “Please. Let. Me. Sleep!” I said. I turned off the reading lamp and slept somewhat uneasily until 7am, when I woke up tired and resentful. On the way down, I ran into a cleaning professional. “Uh…is this hotel haunted?” I asked. She looked confused. “Which room?” She asked. I said, “312.” “No,” she said, shaking her head, “I don’t think so.”

Although her words said no, I could tell that her eyes…also said no. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe it was all technical issues with the lights. That was completely possible. But I couldn’t take another night of it. I took up my colleague’s generous offer to let me stay at her house. I had turned her down, refusing to give in to my fears. But now it was beyond fear. I had not had a decent night of sleep in nearly a week. I had had 12-hour days full of intense training. I was tired. Whether it is a ghost or just electrical malfunctions, I needed a new room. I just wanted to be knocked out.

I felt a slight pang of shame, though. I had wanted to stay all five nights to prove to myself that I could do it. Knowing when to call it quit is a skill that can be very difficult for even seasoned leaders to master. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, the best plans, the best resources, things do not work out. And it is OK for us to conserve our energies for future battles.

“Goodbye!” I said to the room after packing up and putting the light bulb back in like I promised I would. I waited. There was no acknowledgement in any form. The lights could have flickered or something, but nothing. It was slightly disappointing, to be honest, after the tumultuous relationship we had had.

At my colleague’s place, I slept peacefully for the first time in five nights. The next day, we ended our training and reflected on our experience. I had a great time and learned so much this week, and staying at a haunted or possibly just old hotel helped to bring the lessons to life. I have developed many new skills and honed many existing one. And whether or not I’ll stay at a haunted hotel in the future, at least I’ll never have to do another express-your-purpose-statement-using-only-motions-and-yelling exercise ever, because that is much scarier than facing a malevolent spirit. 

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Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

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