Remembering 9/11: Leadership Lessons for Today

In many ways, 22 years seems like a lifetime ago. Yet, for those of us who lived through the unimaginable attacks on September 11, 2001, it remains a horrific moment forever etched in our memories.

On that Tuesday morning, I left my suburban Boston home and headed for Logan Airport, where I had a mid-morning flight to San Jose, California. But before departing, I stopped to record a television interview for my fast-growing startup. It was during that interview when whispers in the hallway grew louder, and the first reports came in—something had happened in New York City. In a world without Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, all we had were vague reports and hearsay.

Then, as strangers, we gathered in front of the screen, our breaths held as the images unfolded, searing into our collective consciousness. I still find it nearly impossible to believe that I watched those planes fly into the towers.

And then, even more impossibly, we watched helplessly as the towers crumbled to the ground. The New York skyline was forever changed, and our collective psyche forever scarred.

The following days were a blur of shock, horror, and confusion as we desperately tried to make sense of the unfolding tragedy. Was it even over? Did more danger lurk?

In the midst of my disillusionment, I found solace in a church. My European president, a close friend visiting from Belgium, joined me. Despite not being religious at the time, I felt pulled into that church just as helplessly as a paper clip finds itself pulled to a magnet. I needed to connect with others, to find reason and hope amidst the chaos.

In the weeks after, I found myself on a near-empty plane from Boston to London with a large American flag sticker proudly displayed on my briefcase—my symbol of defiance against the darkness that had touched us all. The outpouring of sympathy and support from people overseas was incredibly heartening, beginning a process of collective healing. Actually, “healing” isn’t the right word, as I still don’t feel healed from that event. But I began to realize that I could endure and find a way forward.

As a leader then and now, the lessons of 9/11 continue to shape my approach. Here are three takeaways I’d like to share:

  1. Be Authentic: We’re leaders second, humans first. We experience frailty and shock like anyone else. It’s essential to be genuine and open about our emotions and vulnerabilities, creating a space for others to do the same.
  2. Seek Community: In retrospect, my visit to that church was a desperate need to connect with others. Humans require connection, empathy, and support during traumatic times. The worst thing we can do is isolate ourselves.
  3. Show Resilience: Leaders don’t always have the answers, especially in times of crisis. But we must stand up, face the crisis, and lead through it with determination, humility, and perseverance. Displaying these qualities inspires them in others.

The leadership lessons I learned from this experience are as relevant today as ever. My hope in sharing my experience is that it inspires reflection and discussion of how we can all lead with wisdom and humanity when crisis strikes.

As I reflect on this day, it’s sobering to realize that my 11-year-old daughter has no living memory of the 9/11 attacks that so profoundly affected my generation. To her, it seems like something from the “black and white days.” That’s how I felt as a very young child when my parents and grandparents spoke of the Great Depression and World War II as if they had just happened. Yet, I was born only 16 years after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—just a bit more time than the 11-year span between my daughter’s birth and 9/11.

Major traumas shape those who experience them, but their emotional resonance inevitably fades with time. As leaders and parents, we must find ways to help younger generations connect with and learn from our past while inspiring them to create a better future—a kinder, more understanding, and tolerant one.

And we must never forget.

As CEOs, we confront critical choices – growth strategies, succession planning, employee engagement, leadership development…the list seems endless. The weight of these decisions can feel exhilarating, yet also stressful. And lonely.

Even though I started an INC. 500 company, I spent too many years trying to navigate it all solo. I’ve learned every CEO needs a community of peers who understand the unique challenges we face.

Peernacle is a private peer advisory group where leaders in southern Virginia come together and help one another to make better decisions and grow as leaders. If you’re looking for a community where you can gain insight from others who have sat in your seat, explore Peernacle group membership.