September 18, 2011
Leadership Lessons of 9/11
BY Mary Mahoney
The horror of 9/11 shocks us to the core 10 years later. No one ever would associate the word “good” with any aspect of that day, let alone the painful war on terror that followed. Nevertheless, the crisis transformed ordinary people into powerful leaders and produced leadership lessons that can benefit us all.
When reflecting back on the top leaders of Sept. 11, 2001, the first names that come to mind are President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But I would like to examine several lesser-known individuals who demonstrated leadership in response to the terrorist attacks.
Joseph Pfeifer, then a New York Fire Department battalion chief, was responding to a routine call when he saw American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 airliner, slam into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. He rushed to the scene and became the first city fire chief to take command.
Pfeifer was interviewed earlier this year by Michael Useem, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, for his book, The Leaders Checklist. Asked about lessons learned from 9/11 and subsequent crises, Pfeifer rejects the conventional wisdom that leadership should be centralized during a crisis:
“We want one person to run the whole thing. And I think what we have learned since 9/11 and looking at those major events, that is not what leaders do. Leaders during a catastrophic event do more than just manage the event. They do three other things: They connect, collaborate and coordinate.”
Robert Scott, then president and chief operator officer of Morgan Stanley Dean Whittier, told a Harvard Business School audience in late 2001 that one leadership lesson is particularly clear: “If you wait for a crisis to begin to lead, it’s too late. We had 2,500 people in Tower 2 but lost only six because of the evacuation plan we put in place.”
In a 2004 speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he received his MBA in 1970, Scott reflected on leadership, decision-making and values: “Start by knowing yourself and what you believe in. Learn to listen, to connect to people, and if you get lost, reflect back on your values. They will help you stay the course.
“Leadership is a journey. I’m both the same and different than I was 10 or 20 years ago. I’m the same in the decisions I made that were faithful to my personal standards. I’m different and I’d say better because of things I learned from people I work with and decisions that tested me.”
ReginaWilson, one of very few black female New York City firefighters, arrived at Ground Zero just as the towers were collapsing. Seven members from her firehouse, Engine 219, died at the scene. She climbed onto the rubble pile with so many others, painstakingly searching for survivors amid the suffocating smoke and debris.
Since 9/11, Wilson has emerged as a leading advocate of attracting more women into the N.Y.F.D., where only 29 of 11,000 firefighters are female. She has talked to elementary schoolchildren, been interviewed on television and now serves as member of the department’s Recruitment and Diversity Unit.
“I think one of the biggest things that I hope for is not even so much as an African-American woman, but as a woman, period, is that people will be able to see our own personal sacrifices, and that history will show that men were not the only protectors of the city, but there were women there, too,” she said.
John Baldoni, author of Lead With Purpose, cites the example of Joseph Kearns Goodwin, who was born into a life of privilege in Concord, Mass., the son of Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitizer Prize-winning biographer and historian, and Richard N. Goodwin, a writer who served as an advisor in the Johnson and Kennedy administrations.
Having graduated from Harvard in 2001, Joe Goodwin was about to begin a political job when the terrorists struck. The following day, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, a decision that eventually took
him to Iraq and later Afghanistan, where he served as a captain and was awarded a bronze star.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, Baldoni said: “Events do not define the leader; events create the context for the leader’s response. When events unfolded, Goodwin responded by deciding to serve.” The same is true of the other 2.3 million volunteers who put service ahead of themselves and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, Baldoni said.
Interviewed on PRI’s The World on the eve of the 9/11 tenth anniversary, Goodwin reflected on his decision: “I felt that here I was, I had been afforded basically every opportunity that a free society can give you. I went to a great public school system. I went to great university. I had great parents. I grew up in a great town.
“I just felt that here I was, young, able, in relatively good shape; so it just seemed incumbent upon me to give something back to this great country that has given me so much. Especially
because it was evident then, after 9/11, the need was really there for that kind of service.”
Kenneth Chenault, who became chief executive officer of American Express Company in 2001 and continues to hold that position to this day, reflected on 9/11’s challenges during a meeting of the American Express Leadership Academy earlier this year in New York.
“The key is to balance decisiveness with compassion,” he said. “You cannot be afraid to make the tough choices, but you have to do it in a compassionate way.” The destruction of the World Trade
Center damaged the nearby American Express headquarters and killed 11 of its employees.
In the weeks that followed the terrorist attacks, Chenault made what he characterized as “difficult decisions” to protect American Express in the weakened economic environment. He shared the following four strategies that he said helped guide him:
- Be visible: “The people you lead must see how you’re doing and how you’re reacting.”
- Communicate: The second key is to communicate clearly and to give constant assurance to the people you lead. “You need to communicate on a consistent basis. Part of your job is to connect the dots.”
- Stay calm: Another job of a leader in turbulent times is to stay calm. Leaders can be energetic and passionate, but they must not panic. “Maintain your composure. That gives people a level of comfort.”
- Take action: Evidence of action gives comfort to crisis victims. “You cannot freeze up. You can’t allow the circumstances to stop you from acting.”
U.S. Navy Captain G. Mark Handy, the first military commander to reach Ground Zero in Manhattan, offers eight lessons on how to manage a crisis, all inspired by his experiences on 9/11 and its aftermath:
- Assess the situation: “Figure out what’s happening. The first report is almost always wrong. You never get 100 percent of the facts, but a good leader knows how to make a good decision with most of the facts.”
- Control your fear: “You’re going to be afraid. It’s going to scare the daylights out of
you. If you focus on the mission and determine what needs to get done, that gives you the courage to overcome your fear.”
- Take charge: “You’ll find yourself in a crisis situation where
nobody will be in command. People are looking for direction. By taking charge, you put control into the circumstances.”
- Do what’s right, not just what’s legal: “You’ll find out that oftentimes what’s legal was developed in a vacuum of the circumstances you’re encountering.
- Know your goal: “My goal was to account for all of our people and get them to support the fire department, the police department and the FEMA folks in whatever roles they assigned to them.”
- Delegate: “You can’t do it all. You need to build trust among your people. Put them in charge, and let them run with it.”
- Be flexible: “The situation is going to change. You need to adapt. If you stay with the same game plan and make decisions based on outdated information, you can put your people and your mission in jeopardy.”
- Know when you’re done. “At some point, the crisis is going to end and your role is going to be finished. Our time to disengage was when the Army National Guard came in and took over.”
Dickerson’s first lesson is, “Ordinary people answer the call during extraordinary times.” Thousands of first responders, including numerous off-duty firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians who made their way to Ground Zero, toiled around the clock for weeks searching first for survivors, then for victims.
The second lesson is, “Ordinary people make great sacrifices.” Volunteers from across America showed up week after week following the attacks to assist in the World Trade Center clean-up and
recovery effort. Many who could not work in person helped by conducting bake sales to raise money for the victims, donating blood and making cash contributions.
Dickerson’s third and final lesson is, “Ordinary people give hope for a better tomorrow,” which he illustrates by saying, “Who are the leaders that make America great? Look around you. They do
not relish fancy titles or status symbols. They are ordinary people like you.”