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September 11, 2011 was one of the worst days in American history and provided the most superb illustration of exemplary leadership in action.  The local, state, and federal leaders were faced with unimaginable decisions to make in a short period of time.  From collecting information, deploying resources, outlining response planning, and directing a nation, the leaders we all followed through this horrendous event not only provided the leadership needed for a nation to endure but also set an example of what true leadership should look like in everyday work and home life. 

The Leadership Lessons Learned on 9/11

Be the Calmest person in the room

In a situation that would challenge even the most seasoned leader, politician, or executive, we saw Rudy Giuliani consistently permeate a poise and calm that made all those watching feel comfortable that there was some amount of control to the situation.  Mr. Giuliani has commented that a lesson he learned from his father at a young age was that in the event of an emergency, always be the calmest person in the room.  In stressful situations it’s easy to get carried away by the moment and the stress of the event.  As leaders we need to be especially cognizant of this fact because our reaction will absolutely set the tone for the rest of our team and organization. 

Be on the ground and see the issue for yourself

Many criticized Rudy Giuliani for setting up office so close to ground zero in the aftermath of the attacks.  From a business continuity standpoint, his position was certainly risky as he had positioned much of the city’s leadership very close to the soon to fall towers.  At the same time, much of the stellar response and planning came out of just that risky position.  Because information can travel slowly and messages can be diluted, being on the ground and seeing the events unfold was the only way some of the most key decisions were reached.  The same is true when managing through stressful situations or crises in the workplace.  Often times the information you receive can transform reality as it travels to you.  The best way to truly understand the complexity of the problem you are facing is to get close to it.  Walk the process, talk to your front line staff, engage your customers, or do whatever it takes to get a well rounded view of the situation as quickly as is possible. 

Encourage honed focus on the disparate aspects of the situation

In the early hours of 9/11 there was much that wasn't yet well understood.  A fire was raging at the top of the towers and the potential for further attacks were feared.  To ensure that NYC could respond and tackle the two biggest challenges for the city that day, Rudy Giuliani made the controversial decision to separate the Fire and Rescue headquarters from the Police headquarters.  He did this for very good reason.  People can only focus on so much at a time and do it well.  Mr. Giuliani knew that the Fire Department’s first priority had to be the fire and the Police’s first priority had to be protecting the city.  Mixing the two teams and their objectives could have easily resulted in chaos.  When faced with crises situations in business, a key lesson can be gleaned.  Keep your teams focus honed in on just what they can and should handle.  Set clear and well defined goals and then give them room to run and solve the problem. 

Communicate frequently to make leadership visible and put people at ease

In any crisis people need to know that leadership is on top of the situation.  This gives the team and organization a sense of stability that will hold up the group while you’re challenged to respond.  By holding frequent news conferences, Rudy Giuliani put a strong leadership presence to the 9/11 response which Americans and people all around the world were comforted by.  Seeing and hearing from leadership in times of stress and crisis helps to illustrate that the structure the organization relies on is still in place and is working to handle the situation.  This provides comfort and confidence to the troops just when you need their dedication and focus most.

So while 9/11 produced a great deal of tragedy and challenged the American nation to its core, it also provided a example of the key traits leaders should demonstrate when faced with dire situations.  Its often stated that the true leaders are set apart by how they manage through difficult times.  Make sure you understand the key characteristics to embody so that you are well positioned and well prepared the next time that urgent event occurs.