Leadership Lessons from 9/11

I had the dubious privilege to be in New York City on September 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center was destroyed. I was delivering a new training seminar for the American Management Association, “Leading Edge Training Techniques: A Lab for Senior Trainers.” We had just started to gather for our second day of training when one of our class members came in asking if we’d heard about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. As we paused to absorb this, another participant came in with news of a second airplane crashing into the other tower. The seminar was suspended as people rushed to get more news and to try to contact friends and family working at or near the Trade Center just 30 blocks south of us.

At the AMA Conference Center, we were within walking distance of the Trade Center. The news we heard had a strange, unreal quality for most people. They couldn’t believe that things like these were actually happening. All we could really see down Broadway was the plume of smoke in the distance and the emergency vehicles headed south to Lower Manhattan. Communication by cell phone or dial-up connection quickly became very unreliable. I lost my connection to America Online shortly after sending a brief email message home: “Hi Gretchen, World Trade Center attacked. I’m fine here.”

As I walked about the halls and lounges of the AMA Conference Center, I saw a wide range of responses to the news and the minute-by-minute developments. Some people were completely stunned, just sitting and listening to the radio. Others were frantically trying to get a cell phone signal out and connecting one time in ten. People who were there from the local New York area for training were trying to escape, to get home to where it might be safer. Some people were helping others. Other people seemed to have withdrawn into a personal shell. Many people were listening to the news and periodically looking out the window to the south to see if they could see anything of the unreal events that were taking place in the city.

Within the scope of the emergency, I saw many examples of good leadership presented by the Mayor of New York and his Police and Fire Commissioners. At the state level, the Governor of New York added his support. The Federal government helped, too. If leaders motivate, inform, and provide direction to people, these were some very good examples of leadership in action.

Specifically, here are some of the things that these leaders did well:

  • Shared information frequently and addressed questions openly and honestly.
  • Controlled the flow of information to outside agencies (in this case, the public news media) to prevent interference with the current priorities of the situation.
  • Refused to speculate about details that would distract people from the main message.
  • Coordinated communications between different groups (in this case, New York City, State of New York, and the Federal government) to present a clear, unified message and delineation of responsibility.
  • Gave directions about what people should do (and refrain from doing).
  • Focused on the problem and its solution while carefully avoiding attributions of blame.
  • Ended each press conference or communication with a positive, inspirational message.

The immediate results of these actions were that the rescue and recovery efforts went forward as quickly and effectively as possible, and that the public stayed informed about events. The broader result was that the U.S. and international public willingly gave its support to the common effort as confidence in their leaders was maintained and strengthened. In the thick of the crisis, these leaders performed well.

Granted, our own personal leadership challenges will probably never reach the scope of this international effort. Even so, we can take away some basic lessons in leadership from the events of September 11 and the following days.

  • Communicate honestly and openly to inform, reassure, inspire, and direct people.
  • Let people to know how you feel about the situation. This helps them make the personal connection to you as a leader and to your view of what is happening.
  • Update people about the situation frequently to help them feel that they know what is going on.
  • Correct previous information that has turned out to be inaccurate. This helps to catch errors and rumors before they gain too much force of their own and demonstrates your concern that people get the best information.
  • Present a unified message to increase confidence in the leadership and reduce cynicism.
  • Include a call to action in each message, even if that call to action is just for people to get ready for the next message.
  • End each communication with a positive message to inspire action and fend off panic and fear.
  • Use whatever communication methods are available to coordinate work on solving the problem and addressing the situation. Keep those channels of communication fully staffed.
  • Where possible, strive to make a personal appearance on the scene. This gives you a better understanding of the situation and reassures people that you consider the matter to be as important as they do.
  • Take action to address the problem, and make sure that you do nothing to make the problem worse.

The leaders we saw seen in New York and elsewhere were sorely tested by events. In the weeks and months that followed, the challenges continued and changed. Once out of the immediate crisis, the unity and focus fragmented and leadership was not so effective. A long-term future state was never clearly articulated or agreed upon. As leaders, we should keep this challenge in mind—thinking strategically is critical to long-term success once the current crisis or change situation is past.

Leadership is wrapped up with the pursuit of an ideal, whether it is exerted for a national cause or simply to help get something done in one’s own work group. If you are a leader, keep striving for your ideals. Here is what one leader had to say about ideals that still rings true today:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

— Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)