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Powerful Leadership Lessons of 9/11

National September 11 Memorial and Museum. New York, USA - October 09 2018.

Written by Phil Panzarella

September 8, 2022

Shock. Horror. Sorrow. These are words that will come to mind as this September 11th marks the twenty-first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, and the downing of Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA. The events of that day represent a defining moment in our nation’s history – 90% of us
over the age of 30 remember exactly where we were at the moment of the attacks. Yet, each generation experiences the shock, horror, and sorrow of traumatic global events. Our obligation is to move beyond the terrorist act to find lessons that can be drawn from that fateful day and the weeks that followed to benefit us as leaders within our families, our communities, and our businesses. So, what lessons can be learned from our experiences of that fateful day?

My memory of 9/11 is of a beautiful day – blue sky and the sun was shining. My company leadership team and I were in the middle of a presentation at the FDIC building in Washington, DC near the Old Executive Office Building. We knew something was up when the meeting was abruptly interrupted twice, the second time being told that the World Trade Center was struck by a plane, and they thought we could be under attack. As we evacuated the building into the streets of the Capitol, we realized there was really nowhere to go. All roads were blocked, parking garages were jammed, mass transit was at a standstill, and traffic was blocked at all the major bridges leaving DC. F-16 fighter jets screeched overhead as alarms sounded from every direction. Information was scarce in these pre-iPhone days so we jammed into the nearest restaurant with a TV to follow the news and find out if we were really under attack.

As we learned of the magnitude of the terrorist attacks our first reaction was to check on our employees and families. We had team members onsite at the Pentagon and several other DC metro government facilities and each had family in homes and schools nearby. Reaching for our flip phones and Blackberries, we quickly learned that we could not reach anyone – all cell towers were jammed. With no access to communication and all transportation blocked, we were forced to sit and wait, watching a foreign invasion via the TV and praying. A sense of frustration prevailed as we sat and watched the events unfold, events that claimed the lives of some 2,977 people and injured more than 6,000 others.

Reflecting on these events 21 years later, many lessons of positive leadership can be applied to business leaders today. It is clear there were many courageous and selfless acts during this terrorist attack. Clear examples were the passengers of Flight 93, the Mayor of New York, police commissioners, fire chiefs, the President, and average citizens going above and beyond! These men and women exhibited traits of leadership (Semler, 3/16/15) under pressure that we can all learn from, including:

  • Share information frequently and address questions openly and honestly
  • Control the flow of information to outside agencies to prevent interference
  • Refuse to speculate about details that would distract people from the main message
  • Focus on the problem and its solution while carefully avoiding blame
  • Coordinate communications among groups to present a clear, unified message and delineation of responsibility.

These traits contributed to the extraordinary rescue and recovery efforts on 9/11 and the days and weeks that followed. As business leaders it’s important to ask ourselves how we would react under similar circumstances. What leadership lessons can we each derive from our own experiences of this national disaster? And how will we apply those lessons learned in our lives today? While each of us will reflect on these questions differently, there are positive leadership lessons that can benefit us ALL in our daily business and personal lives. Here are a few:

  • Others before self. This was emulated by the passengers on flight 93 and the many fire fighters and rescue personnel. They did not worry about their own personal safety. Their initial inclination was to save others. It was clearly a mentality of “others first.” A great example of “Servant leadership! What is your leadership style?
  • Effective Communication. Effective, timely, honest, and accurate communication proves to be the most significant leadership lesson in a situation of unknowns. Communication has to be unified, and errors must be minimized and corrected if they happen. In uncertain times we all have a thirst for information. We want the facts, and we want them now. I call this instantaneous gratification! As important, communication has to have some cadence of
    frequency even if it is a report that we “do not know”.
  • Lead by Example. How often do we hear leaders have to “lead by example” or “your actions speak louder than your words”. More is expected of leaders. People watch your actions and can be swayed or inspired by them. Many of the leaders on 9/11 led by example and were physically present. They displayed their emotion and humanness and yet were inspirational to the many thirsting for information and leadership. They planned, acted and inspired others
    to action even in the face of extreme adversity!
  • Courage. A lot of leaders during this time didn’t have the answers. Many were fearful, but all had the courage to act. Courage is not the absence of fear. We all are fearful. Courage is how one overcomes and deals with fear. Clearly, many of the leaders did not let fear overcome them or their judgment. They overcame their fear, made decisions, and moved to action. We all need courage at times to do the right things, even in daily business
    transactions!
  • Acting, not blaming. Many of the leaders during this time of crisis spent no time on trying to affix blame nor to create a negative climate. They focused on taking accountability and action. They moved and acted with a common purpose to get through the crisis. Remember, an environment where people are allowed to blame others without taking personal responsibility can jeopardize your operations and organizational culture.
  • Contingency Planning. You never know when a crisis will hit. Take the time to plan contingencies for emergency situations and rehearse them. As we have seen, a crisis can come in many different forms: terrorist attacks, pandemics, floods, snow storms, energy failure, cyber-attack, etc. Our goal as leaders is to plan for and prioritize high-risk events with what appear to be unlikely occurrences. They may not happen but when they do there will be a game plan for action that could possibly save lives or your business.

I know there are many lessons to be learned from 9/11. I hope these thoughts and ideas can help you in navigating your business and even personal life. As a student of leadership, I am constantly inspired by the positive leadership skills of the many leaders I have the honor and pleasure of working with on a daily basis. I am constantly learning from them and reinforcing my leadership skills. And I look forward to learning together as we build our businesses and our communities.

Thank you, and God Bless the United States of America.
Phillip Panzarella
NVSBC Board of Directors
CEO, Panzarella Consulting LLC.

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