Four Leadership Lessons Learned From 9/11

Twenty years ago today, my work day started like any other, at my desk checking email. I had co-founded a startup a few years earlier and our offices were in lower Manhattan. The first sense that something was wrong started with a huge roar of an airplane flying overhead, way too close. A breathless co-worker ran into the office saying that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. That prompted the entire office to empty out onto Fifth Avenue with a direct view of the Towers.

The street corner chatter said it was a private jet with mechanical issues. Ambulances and fire trucks were streaming down Fifth Avenue and then, from our vantage point, the second tower just exploded. As everyone was theorizing how the plane could have caused the second explosion, a co-worker with a radio to his ear stopped us. “Another plane hit the second tower. One was American Airlines…this is a terrorist attack,” he said grimly. I froze. Mr. Stevens had left that morning on an 8am American Airlines flight.

Researchers say that for those of us who were adults on 9-11, the date is a demarcation point. The vast majority remember exactly where we were. Many describe it as a major turning point in their lives and in the country. I think this is particularly true for anyone who was in a leadership position that day. Office towers were evacuated nationwide. Retailers ordered stores to close. The markets ceased trading. Leaders had to make decisions that day in the face of tremendous uncertainty all over, but particularly in New York City. Transportation was suspended. Cell phone and Internet service was only partially functional both due to volume and the loss of cell towers and data centers. For those thousands of businesses in and around the towers, employee’s lives were at risk as they evacuated from smoke and falling debris. Incredible stories of what leaders did abound from that day.

1. Focus On The Basics

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that the first leadership decision I made, after frantically calling Mr. Stevens’ cell phone to no avail, was to go grocery shopping. There was some logic behind it. The Mayor had ordered everyone above 14th street to stay put to enable downtown to evacuate. I had thirty traumatized employees in our office, little food and most restaurants were closing. Some lived in New Jersey and Long Island and thought they might be spending the night. Having fundamental basics, like food, covered for the team seemed like the most critical thing for a leader to do at that moment. As I walked out of Food Emporium, the towers were still smoking over the horizon. Then one just collapsed out of the sky. 

2. Listen Deeply

Another leadership lesson learned that day is that everyone handles trauma differently. I now have a visceral understanding of the word “gut wrenching” as I pulled every stomach muscle while waiting to hear from Mr. Stevens. I had employees who were glued to the television in the conference room. Some sobbed at their desks. I had a few who went back to working because they just needed the distraction. I decided my job was just to check in with each of them one by one. Did they have family or friends in the towers that they were worried about? Did they have a plan for getting home once we were allowed to leave? Just being available to listen is sometimes the most important thing a leader can do.

3. Figure Out How To Help

The third lesson I learned that day was the healing power of helping. The itch to rush to lower Manhattan was strong, but ill advised. So our team began to think about what we could do to help from where we were. Seeing the masses streaming up from downtown, many now covered in dust, a group took all our bottled water down to pass it out. We pulled together a list of nearby hospitals so people could give blood. As we moved from shock and grief into a sense of action, you could palpably feel stress levels come down a notch.

4. Practice Your Core Values

Finally, the importance of values during a time of crisis was clear. Starbucks ordered stores closed nationwide, but local store managers near the towers refused to close in order to support first responders, citing the “Contribute positively to our communities and our environment” value. When our part of the city was allowed to evacuate at 5:30pm, I left barefoot, not wanting to walk the 6 miles home in heels. As I walked up Broadway past a shuttered chain sporting goods store, the owner of the small shoe shop next door offered me sneakers, for free. He had been doing this all day once he noticed most women evacuating were barefoot. The contrast couldn’t have been more striking. 

I’ve now led companies through 9-11, the Boston Marathon bombing, and a global pandemic, but the core leadership lessons remain the same. Focus first on the basics. Listen deeply. Figure out how to help. But most importantly, have core values that enable you, and your company, to be at your best when the world around you is at its worst.

Quote of the Week:  “And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Haruki Murakami

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