Crisis Management: Rudy Giuliani – Crisis Leadership At Work: 9/11
For all his faults, I think most reasonable people would agree that during 9/11 and the aftermath then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani gave a personal lesson in crisis leadership. Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol poisoning case may be the gold standard for corporate responsibility in crisis, but Giuliani on attack day and beyond will forever be a benchmark for executive excellence under the worst possible circumstances. He seemed – and was – everywhere at all hours, talking to New Yorkers and a CNN-transfixed world. He courted danger. The rolling devastation destroyed his emergency operations center, killing city personnel he knew and had visited earlier as well as a beloved fire department chaplain he had talked with at “ground zero.”
In the face of loss and terror, when so many needed information, consolation, and inspiration, Giuliani exemplified the difference between leader and manager. He epitomized crisis leadership.
He gave New York a face – He humanized a metropolis of millions suffering casualties by the thousands. Sometimes the horror of many is more palpable through the eyes of one.
He conveyed the bad news – He told what he knew, but would not speculate or be needlessly alarming. He refused to estimate how many were killed, but left no doubt that the total would be horrendous.
He answered the tough questions – He didn’t duck. Early reports of asbestos in the dust and smoke frightened many. Giuliani talked to experts who said the risk was low, and he relayed it. He didn’t pretend to know it all and relied on others. When asked when crews should shift from delicate search and rescue to blunt-force recovery of bodies, he said experts would let him know. Yet, he gently conditioned families for that inevitable finality.
He put the disaster into historical context – He related the attack to World War Two’s Battle of Britain. He reminded us that even though Nazis bombed London nightly for weeks, the British arose each morning, picked their way through the rubble and resolved to live as normally as possible. They would not be broken and Giuliani promised that New Yorkers wouldn’t either.
He served as cheerleader – He often summoned “the spirit of New York,” and encouraged his people to resume normal lives to prove that terrorists would not prevail in disrupting them. His forthrightness in telling bad news gave him moral authority to encourage optimism and hope.
He was accessible – He held frequent press conferences to report late information, and appeared often on network and local news. If there were a way to reach his citizens, he would exploit it.
He guided the media – He thanked reporters when they did a good job, e.g. their sensitivity in relating victims’ stories; and warned them about being suckered into repeating rumors that were wrong and emotionally misleading as when they incorrectly said five trapped firefighters were rescued.
He persevered through exhaustion – In one interview he looked as though he would fall over from fatigue. Because Giuliani – like the searchers in the rubble and victim’s families holding vigil – would not quit, he reinforced and represented the determination of all.
He credited others – He didn’t hog the limelight, let other officials have their say, and repeatedly thanked the Governor, police and fire commissioners, and some who once were political adversaries. One for all and all for one indeed.
It wasn’t about him – This was not a show-off, but an authentically upset and unyielding executive. For someone known as sometimes combative, occasionally arrogant, and often self-centered, he clearly checked his ego at the Statue of Liberty.
And so, the Mayor responded supremely. Could the rest of us successfully face extreme challenge? Severe stress strips us to our essential selves. If the hundreds who reacted selflessly and sacrificially in New York are representative, many of us probably do have a hero inside. We likely will answer the call if pressed hard enough. But to react magnificently while inspiring a city, state, and a nation is a singular achievement and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did it that awful September day.