America will never forget the horrific events that transpired twenty years ago on September 11, 2001. Many of us still remember where we were when the planes flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Although it was an agonizing moment in our history, it’s also a reminder of the resilience of the American people and our values.
In moments of crisis and chaos, we often look to leaders to guide us through difficult times. On the night of the attacks, President George W. Bush delivered an address that recognized the suffering of the nation, glorified the strength of the American people and outlined future actions. Following the attacks, Bush’s approval rating rose to 90%, which is the highest recorded job-approval rating in U.S. presidential history.
Here are five key lessons we can take on leading through a tragedy from Bush’s address.
1. Acknowledge the pain and offer hope. September 11 was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. Thousands of families lost loved ones, from those who were on the planes and in the buildings to the brave people who worked tirelessly to rescue others. The entire country felt the weight of suffering on that day.
On the evening of 9/11, Bush said in his address to the nation, “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed; our country is strong…Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
The pain individuals endure should never be disregarded. The first step a leader should take is to recognize what has happened. Allow individuals to grieve and let them know that you stand with them. Additionally, be sure to offer hope and remind them of their strength to continue on.
2. Don’t waver on your principles. Al Qaeda believed their actions would spread fear among the American people. The terrorist attacks damaged key landmarks in our nation – the Pentagon (representing America’s military power) and the Twin Towers (symbolizing America’s wealth and prosperity).
However, Bush reassured the nation that the threats would not damage our core foundation. Bush said, “America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”
It can be difficult to stay grounded in your values when they come under threat. It’s crucial in moments like these that you remind your team what those values are and how you will preserve them. If you divert from them, you will start to lose your purpose.
3. Respond calmly and quickly. When Bush was first notified of the attacks, he was participating in a reading lesson for children. He would later explain why he made the decision to not immediately jump up and leave the classroom. He said, “I wanted to project a sense of calm…I had been in enough crises to know that the first thing a leader has to do is project calm.”
Bush made sure to address the nation on the same day of the attack and described what was being done by saying, “Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government’s emergency response plans. Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared. Our emergency teams are working in New York City and Washington, D.C., to help with local rescue efforts.”
The reactions of a leader will set the tone in any organization. A leader responding in fear and panic can cause turmoil. The thing people need most in the midst of chaos is a calm voice reassuring them along the way. One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is to not address an issue in a timely manner. By addressing the problem and the measures that are in place, a leader can instill confidence.
4. Lay out your plan of action. The response to these deadly attacks would lead to many changes within our nation. Operation Enduring Freedom was launched to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and destroy Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. The Department of Homeland Security was introduced one year later with the purpose of preventing terror attacks. The 9/11 attacks also led to tightening airport security around the globe.
Although Bush did not detail every step of action the government would take, he said, “The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I’ve directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice.”
You don’t have to have a step-by-step plan in place. However, the people you lead have to know that you intend to take action. Share the first steps you will take and maintain that you will keep them informed of future details. And, most importantly, make sure you act on what you promise.
5. Recognize the strength of individuals. In his speech, Bush acknowledged and esteemed the brave individuals who took care of one another. He said, “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded with the best of America – with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
By acknowledging those who help others during a tragedy, you highlight a glimmer of hope. It also conveys that you value those individuals and what they are doing to make a difference.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, let us not forget the individuals who lost their lives in these atrocious events. Let us continue to pray for the affected families. And, let us also take a moment to thank those who served and fought for the freedoms we are privileged to have today.