Our Lessons From 9/11

At first the ringing phone seemed a slightly nagging distant interruption in a cozy early morning sleep. As I began to become more conscious, it became downright irritating. I finally realized I had to grab it to stop the ringing. I answered the phone and glanced up and saw 5:52 AM on the digital display on my alarm clock.

I wondered with some anxiousness what could be the matter that would get someone calling before 6AM. I’ll never forget the emotionally shaken sound in my grown son’s voice calling from Southern California as he said, “Mom, are you watching your TV?”

It seemed a strange question to awaken to so early on a chilly fall morning. But I sensed instantly that something very serious had happened. All kinds of possible family tragedies flashed like a racing slide show through my head as I answer, “No, why?”

“A plane has flown into the World Trade Center. Turn it on! I think we’re being attacked by terrorists!”

“Really? Maybe it’s just an accident?” I tried to minimize the unthinkable ugliness of what he had said. But I knew that he stayed abreast of geo-political issues and something in his voice led me to feel that we would never be the same again. I told him I would go turn on the TV and talk to him later. But before I could hang up, this normally stoic man hastened to say, “I love you, Mom”. His reassurance left me uneasy that morning, as though he wondered if we would see one another again.

I hung up the phone and called to my husband, watching television in the family room, “Jeff! That was Matt. He says a plane has flown into the…”

“Yes I know. I’m watching it right now. Come and see it. There is a huge fire burning out of the top of the building”, he answered.

I jumped out of bed grabbing the closest robe and ran in to join Jeff. Aghast, we stared at the burning tower. We watched transfixed as reporters scrambled to figure out what to say about it. Some said it was a small private plane, probably a novice pilot who made a wrong turn. Still others reported stories of people seeing a larger plane.

As we watched, our natural denial set in and it all appeared so staged…so Hollywood…so unreal. But my mind kept asking, “What about the people? Are there people in the building? Someone must be hurt?” Then suddenly before my very eyes came another plane. This was clearly a passenger plane in the middle of the New York City skyline, and suddenly, shockingly, it flew right into the 2nd Tower. Billows of flames and smoke erupted as the plane tore through the colossal skyscraper as though it were made of tissue stretched over balsa wood in some miniature model of a city.

All doubt that this could be an accident exploded with that second plane. The unthinkable horrific reality that someone had flown planes and their passengers, as human bombs, into skyscrapers began to settle in, through my disbelieving eyes. Though I was watching from California, I instantly and forever became a New Yorker that day. New York was instantly transformed in my heart from some distant tourist destination to my town. And every New Yorker felt like family as I watched the nightmare of “my people” unfold in horror.

Suddenly no appointments of the day mattered anymore. Even a thought of the consequences of canceling on clients didn’t matter. Time had stood still. The people in these planes and towers were all that mattered. I wanted to be there, helping them get out. I just collapsed in prayer for them and their families, hanging on every word of news, much of it wrong.

Little did I know that for over an hour we would see one horrific atrocity after another unfold. It was like trying to stand up in choppy surf as one wave after another hits you and knocks you down. The first plane had hit at 5:46 AM, our time. The second plane struck the South tower at 6:03AM. By 6:37 American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Just as we were beginning to get pictures of that tragedy, cameras flashed back to New York City to catch the collapse of the South Tower and people running in terror like the scenes from a science fiction movie. My mind was reeling, as the news of yet a 4th hijacked plane began to be reported. By 7:03 AM United flight 93 had crashed in Shankesville, Pennsylvania. As I watched, I prayed that the North tower could hold up and they could get the people out. The jumpers had begun to choose falling over dying in the flames. At 7:28 AM the North Tower collapsed, and with it all hopes for rescue of the people inside.

I had been awake for little more than an hour and had seen 3000 fellow Americans murdered in real time by the most barbaric attack imaginable. I, and Americans everywhere wondered if we would be next. Or, what would be next? Would everything just begin to explode all around us? Would we be made witnesses to more barbarism? Could more of us say good-bye and go off to work to face a death only seen in nightmares? In the following weeks, months, and now years I find myself turning on the news even before I awaken in the morning to be reassured that we are all still safe. And thankfully, grateful for our many American heroes, most of us are still safe.

For days after 9/11, I wandered “out of body”, my emotions seeming strangely disconnected from whatever was going on around me. Everything seemed meaningless against the backdrop of the nightmare we had witnessed. Looking at fellow Americans with a special new love, I so wished I could go to New York or Washington DC to help. I didn’t know what I could do, but I wanted to do something. So, I sent money. I prayed. I cried at televised memorials. I wrote letters & I emailed editorials to which no one ever responded, though it made me feel better. And, I began to see some of the most outstanding leadership and teamwork of my lifetime, emerging quite naturally out of America’s ashes.

My Kind of Leaders & Teams!

I am a team building facilitator, strategic leadership consultant and retreat speaker. Playing out before me on TV was the essence of what I had been teaching for over 20 years. Ground Zero, like a Mecca, drew Americans from every corner of the country who just showed up to help. They selflessly served one another and the victims. Whether it was searching for survivors, picking up garbage, leading prayer, offering blankets, binding bloody feet, or wrapping warm wet towels, or serving meals, volunteer teams of Americans came together with one single focus. They came to serve a cause much greater than themselves. Leaders and officials had the same singular focus and didn’t allow any artificial barriers to get in the way.

They wanted to help and comfort their fellow citizens and to rescue survivors. Even when the hope of survivors faded, they seemed to shift in unity to a shared reverence and commitment to the crash sites as the sacred ground of innocent victims and heroes who had given their all. They also reached out with compassion to the families of victims. Their mission was a clear and compelling sight! Everyone who wasn’t able to go there talked of how they wished they could. We all felt a pull to do something, anything, to help and give comfort. We all wanted to do something bigger than ourselves.

Local leaders like Rudy Giulliani were also doing the right things. He gave powerful speeches to pull us together around the single vision. He could be seen hugging citizens, going to memorials, leading in prayer, thanking the trash collectors, giving recognition to heroes, and empowering and serving volunteers. He continually clarified the daily goals, kept everyone in the communication loop, and gave recognition for both individual and team contributions to the recovery. He was truly managing by wandering around in the very best sense of the concept. And he walked and talked with inspiration and unfailing faith in recovering a vibrant future!

President Bush pulled us together with a shared vision and lifted our hope and pride when he put his arm around a retired fire fighter and told us all that he heard us, and that the people who knocked down those buildings would soon hear from us all. Those were galvanizing words and days of patriotism and love of our fellow citizens followed. Everyone was a little kinder everywhere. And President Bush was an inspiring live example of a good guy and a man of strength and prayer. He was the picture of compassion, humanity, and incredible integrity that we all so desperately needed to believe still existed in our shaken world.

It was so powerful, that I began to study it in earnest. The kind of teamwork and leadership I had been teaching for years was happening spontaneously…naturally. Americans were doing it intuitively! Leaders were leading. People were teaming up. Selflessness was evident everywhere. Giving and generosity was the norm of the day. Even here in California, far from Ground Zero, we would be driving down the street and suddenly come upon firemen or police in the middle of the intersection holding out buckets or boots. Passing drivers would be tossing in dollars and filling them up. We never felt the need to question where the money was going or if it would be fairly distributed. No one seemed to be wondering, who would get the credit. Everyone was just pitching in to become a part of the solution. Good grief, even Congressional Democrats and Republicans came out and sang God Bless America TOGETHER on the Capitol lawn!

Phenomena I have routinely seen in my consulting work, like stupid bureaucratic barriers to problem solving, endless circular and meaningless process requirements, burdensome paperwork, turf wars, power struggles and self-interest had all taken a holiday. Priorities seemed clear. Patriotism was in. Communication was consistent. People were operating in unity and we were all so much better for it!

But, I began to wonder how long it would last. I also wondered if I could somehow articulate the lessons as a shared common experience, so that people could duplicate it and improve their performance in the workplace. So many organizational transformation projects over the years had brought me face-to-face with managers and employee groups who seemed to look at me like I was speaking a foreign language, as I tried to teach and inspire them to make this type of teamwork and leadership catch fire in their workplace. I have often wondered in the face of skeptics, what is so hard, foreign, or complex about the concepts of leadership and teamwork. And now here it was! Everyone was just doing it, and without trainers or facilitators to develop leaders and teams. Americans were proving that they knew intuitively how to work smart and achieve excellence together. It wasn’t rocket science. It was the stuff of which our country was founded and developed.

It Wouldn’t Last Long!

My experience told me that unless someone put a specific plan together to sustain this teamwork, a sense of normalcy would set in and people would go right back to acting the way they had in the past. Without a sustaining strategy, leaders would reclaim their turf, the bureaucracies would reclaim their control over innovation, and the grief of a nation would turn to anger and resentment, killing the spirit of teamwork we so desperately needed to recover. I felt so strongly about it, that I began to try contacting leaders to recommend new approaches to sustaining the best practices I had seen. But, the momentum was beginning to reverse and go downhill too fast. Most leaders were busy getting back to normal. No one could allow any new ideas to pass the blood-brain barrier. The silos of self-interest were beginning to re-establish themselves and take over the teamwork and leadership that had evolved so naturally in the face of disaster. The dysfunction seemed to reemerge like mushrooms springing up as naturally as the spirit of good will that preceded them. It was counted as success to be able to get back to business-as-usual. I wanted to climb to the top of a tower and yell at America to slow down and process the lesson! Let the sense of brotherhood settle in!

Within a couple of weeks, before all the memorial songs had been sung, stories of labor disputes at ground zero, emerging blame games and law suits had begun. Soon physical conflicts nearly erupted over what to do with ground zero. How to deal with Al-Qaeda and countries that harbored terrorists, or how to recover from the financial disasters that came with 9/11 became political footballs in DC.

Within days and a good 14 months before the decision to go into Iraq, our national leaders were again role models of division and disrespect. No longer did they rally around any united vision or person. I wanted to scream at televised reports and say, “Hay wait, hold up, just a few weeks ago we were doing this together. All you need is a facilitator!” But no facilitator came along, nor would one have been accepted. Folks became more vitriolic and entrenched in their turf than ever before. Hollywood notables began stoking the fires of discord, as if there wasn’t enough conflict. We began to find ourselves pummeled daily by Hollywood celebrities asserting their views, as though someone had elected them to their high positions and needed their personal opinions….even to the point of insulting some of our most honorable military leaders and people who had been elected.

Over the next few years we became a nation and a culture crippled by division and apparent hatred for our fellow Americans, whom we loved regardless of their politics on September 12, 2001. Congress and the Senate became our role models for hate speech, while they implored the states to pass laws against it.

Now nearly 10 years later, Al-Qaeda is still plotting terror attacks, ground zero is still a gaping hole in the ground, New York is ignoring the most obvious groundzero wishes of the 9/11 victims families and American patriots, and our economy has begun an unprecedented meltdown with the most bureaucratic ever Big Government, spending nightmarish amounts of money and promising to cure all our ills. If we could have sustained the teamwork spirit that existed at the time of the tragedy, the hole in the ground would have surely been healed by now, our soldiers would not have to wonder about their support and respect at home, and our companies and government organizations would surely be better poised for economic recovery.

So now we are faced with The Audacity of Hope from our first African-American President. We experienced and incredible love-in on Capital Mall as Americans cheered the healing of racism from our Land during the Presidential Inauguration. But the good will and brotherhood was cleared away with the trash at dawn? I can’t remember a time of more division, more name-calling, more racism, more incompetence and more failure. Americans are reeling and hunkering down for another depression or a revolution, or who knows what?

We are facing crises on many fronts. Americans do respond like heroes in a crisis, but not so well to a bunch of unnecessary crises happening all at once! Can President Obama be a Community-Organizer-in-Chief and organize Americans to grab onto the excellence they know intuitively while national disasters mount? He campaigned on a theme of change you can believe in. He promised transparency. But these ideas faded into the dust of the real estate collapse, boarded up small businesses, a double dip jobless recession, and nightmarish national debts less than 2 years after the inaugural balls turned out their lights.

Throughout the inauguration festivities, reporters everywhere were heard asking how long His honeymoon with the American people might be. While we are dependant upon the right stuff from our President in leadership, he must count on all of us as well to do our BEST Work, which we do when we can get the barriers our of the way. At a macro level, Americans do their BEST Work when they find partners in the White House and Congress with whom they can team-up.

Empowered by Transparency

On 9/11, the devastation, both physically and emotionally was clearly visible wherever we turned. There in that vulnerable state everything became so incredibly clear. The wounds of our country that day were transparent…wide open for all to see the bleeding! The shared vision was unquestionable.

So, what is the teamwork and leadership lesson? It validates the most basic, even Biblical ancient beliefs about leadership and teamwork. When leaders are at their BEST, they are leading a clearly focused shared vision by example. They are coaching and developing the performance they need with clearly articulated expectations and open accessible feedback loops. They are partnering with those around them to get important things done efficiently and with shared resources. They are solving problems in a way that shares information and ownership. They are providing the right incentives by recognizing the contributions of those who make progress toward the vision, and creating pressures on those who are not helpful.

Americans are intuitive about teamwork. They don’t need teamwork to be taught to them. Certain processes and circumstances, combined with superb leadership just brings teamwork out in Americans. What we need is ownership in a compelling vision, leadership integrity, and the freedom and empowerment to find the best pathways to success.

In other words, when empowered by leaders to use their talents to solve clearly compelling problems Americans just do their BEST WORK…plain and simple. We know it when we experience it! The biggest job of a leader is to achieve the mission by staying out of the way and building empowered team ownership, commitment, and sustaining consistent follow through for accountable results.

Unfortunately, we often create marginal to downright frustrating bureaucratic organizations, too frequently seen in the workplace today. Indeed, the 9/11 Report found many of the dysfunctional problems in the government workplace before 9/11 contributed greatly to our vulnerability that day.

As we confront the most devastating economic crisis in many decades, we face an economic 9/11. Can we turn those frustrating organizations around and make them a part of the teamwork needed to recover from this crisis? Private companies will have to function with excellence or die (unless of course, they are big enough to qualify for the recent rash of government bailouts!). But even with bailouts, failure will continue unless these companies somehow transform into small agile work teams focused like a lazar on strategic results. We are seeing the beginnings of these rolling failure trends now with tightening credit lines and multiple requests for bailouts. Boarded up buildings line the cityscapes where some of our favorite small businesses once stood. These are the businesses that are on the receiving end of the larger failures without a time or financial margin for reform. At this writing 8 million Americans have lost their job and have no meaningful signs of recovery.

What does this mean for government agencies? The Federal Government is growing faster than any enterprise and has been given a complete pass in the current financial disaster. Further, they are spared the natural consequences of poor management and low performance. They never go out of business! They invisibly weigh down our economy with little accountability and little to show for resources continuously diverted as taxes from the private sector to keep government going and growing. The money continues to flow in, while results fail to flow out of such agencies. Influence is to government what profit is to the private sector. And the budget for buying influence in a self-serving culture is never enough. Political influence is a hungry monster with a very expensive appetite. It has become an appetite for ever enlarging churning activity that produces little in terms of results, but nevertheless eager to gobble up every enterprise that stumbles in its path.

State and local governments are beginning to see the results of their gobbling activities and the picture is not pretty. States like California, having lived far beyond what it’s business tax base could sustain is getting in line for Federal bailouts, while their small and medium businesses close a rate not seen since Ayan Rand wrote the “fictional” Atlas Shrugged. One can only wonder how long the American economy can function on the huge amounts of money being borrowed and printed as surrogates for real wealth.

Some solutions being considered include and expansion of government through the funding of more government make-work programs or extended unemployment benefits. These “solutions” fail to recognize that healthy people what to work and make a difference, and that what we need is to build real wealth back into our economy. Wealth building only really happens in the private sector. Government jobs do not create wealth in the economy. They gobble it up. So, larger government is exactly the opposite of what Team America needs right now. It is a move to put our players in the wrong positions to win the game.

While private businesses find themselves in survival mode, government must support the private sector belt tightening with a commitment to sliming itself down. Government must streamline work processes, dismantle convoluted burdensome systems, reward results that truly serve the people, eliminate waste and inefficiency, and create consequences that shut down non-performance and non-Constitutional activities that have mushroomed over many decades.

And this is possible! There are government agencies taking on these streamlining challenges today, albeit very few. Government and the private sector must all cut back on waste together in order to make the economic gains America needs. Team collaboration and bold leadership can find the innovative path through this frightening wilderness. And a commitment to quality means smaller more agile work units, close to the customer and eliminating unnecessary demands on businesses. Business is the patient in our national emergency room. Every measure must be taken to breathe life into the business sector. Health businesses must become the vision of government agencies. That is why our founders limited government in our Constitution.

Businesses should never find their government in competition with them. Government agencies where this is understood, find ways to achieve their mission while bringing business partners into the solution. Businesses are always able to operate in more flexible agile change strategies. That is the part of the team they should play. There is no evidence that government agencies can operate more competently than effective businesses. In fact, all data reflects the contrary, so government shouldn’t try. Together, both sectors can team up to create a healthy economic whole. But this will only work if government becomes smaller and business larger. It simply doesn’t work the other way around.

We will recover only if we are willing to change ourselves in order to change organizational cultures and their leaders that breed bureaucracy, lack of communication and rewards for mediocrity. Leadership and team commitment to be the Best and do the tough work to sustain America’s Best Work is where this recovery begins. 9/11 proved America is strong and worthy of our trust. Americans are resilient and always work to recover from a crisis. In fact, it seems to be inherent in our culture to love a crisis. And it’s a good thing, since we have no margin for error in recovering from these economic woes. We have a really critical crisis on our hands. We need the incentives and pressures in the right places to reinvigorate our free enterprise economic machine and to support it with a lean and streamlined government enterprise that is not a burden to our business recovery.

If you share this commitment, or believe you can develop it, this book is a model and a toolbox for leading and teaming up to do America’s BEST Work for this and other critical missions. Let’s apply the lessons of 9/11 and honor our military who have died for these lessons. Let us not let any of our fellow Americans’ deaths be in vain who have given their lives for the America that stands as “the shining city on the hill”. Let’s demonstrate that we can team up for excellence without another tragic disaster. We can learn together and honor our heroes’ memories with daily acts of courage to make the American workplace the strongest foundation for our domestic and economic security. Make your commitment to be America’s BEST your personal tribute to American bravery and to the blessing of being an American.

We can reinvent ourselves. After all we’ve shown that we want to team up and we know how!
Cheri148 Cheri148
1 Response Sep 7, 2010

I cannot believe that some people are still talking about September 11.