It was beyond imagination: Four planes, two landmark towers, a swath of the Pentagon, thousands of lives, all lost in one harrowing morning. No leadership seminar, no business textbook, no theory of management could have envisioned the massive task of rescue, recovery and rebuilding in the wake of such an attack. In New York alone, it had left a war zone in the middle of a city – a smoldering pile of twisted steel whose cleanup had to be mindful of the need to move forward yet respectful of those for whom it had become a final resting place. Such a task would be daunting to even the most seasoned leader.


And yet, in the hours, days and months afterward, people did emerge who proved to be equal to exactly that challenge – both titled authorities and little-known staffers. Putting aside traditional roles, they recognized the effectiveness of on-the-fly decision-making and situation-based responses that sometimes flew in the face of traditional protocol.


Experts at Wharton and elsewhere note that the leadership challenge in any crisis is often to strike a balance between planning and improvisation, clear chains of command and healthy disregard for titles. An even greater challenge, they say, is to encourage the same kind of leadership in non-crisis situations – in other words, to make every hour of an organization its finest hour.


Unlikely Leaders


In his three-part account of the recovery effort at Ground Zero in The Atlantic Monthly, titled “American Ground,” correspondent William Langewiesche describes the emergence of unlikely leaders at the World Trade Center site such as Ken Holden and Mike Burton, managers at New York City’s Department of Design and Construction, an agency created in 1996 to oversee municipal infrastructure maintenance.


“As the second-in-command of an obscure city agency in Queens, Burton had not the slightest authority here at the Trade Center site, but he was willing to assume it anyway … He knew already what others soon discovered – that he had a particular talent for making up his mind,” notes Langewiesche in his story.


Even though the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management was supposed to be coordinating the efforts, there was a realization at the site that the rules were somewhat suspended, that there was no time or place for thinking about protocol or permissions, states Langewiesche. Their “low-tech management system” of meetings in a kindergarten classroom at a public school near the site “proved to be particularly well suited to the apocalypse outside,” he writes. While many of the people close to the scene were “accomplished people with impressive resumes,” at the site it “hardly mattered what they had done before. However temporarily, there was a new social contract here, which everyone seemed to understand.”


Wharton management professor Michael Useem, director of the school’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, notes that people at the scene of a disaster with a good grasp of the situation are often best equipped to make decisions regardless of rank. “As a leader, you want your people to have self-confidence and the presence of mind to take action,” he says. He recounts the actions of Morgan Stanley security chief Richard Rescorla, who – after the North Tower was hit – made some phone calls to size up the situation. He called the company’s CEO but ultimately made the decision to evacuate the firm’s employees in spite of conflicting advice from the Port Authority and others to stay in the South Tower. Having seen what had happened when the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, Rescorla lost no time in getting several thousand of the firm’s employees out of danger. Only a few didn’t make it, and sadly, Rescorla was one of them.


“Making such a situationally critical decision had a profound effect on the outcome,” says Useem. “If you think about it, there were probably some people he was marching out of there – senior bankers, for instance – making several times his salary. But his authority held. The drills he had been training people for since 1993 had been resented but they paid off.”


Preparing for the Worst


Wilderness firefighting, says Useem, is another example of a circumstance where being on the ground is especially important. “In firefighting, there is the concept of an ‘incident commander.’ If a group of smokejumpers goes to fight a fire, the first person on the ground becomes the incident commander. It’s not necessarily the most senior person. Everyone knows this policy and it is completely understood. That’s the key. A junior person may thus have authority depending upon the situation.”


Useem notes, however, that such a system can suffer if the plan is not clear. “In the case of the infamous 1994 fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, several different firefighters thought that they were the incident commanders. One had come in by foot, one by helidrop, etc., so authority was left ambiguous. Fourteen firefighters died. In a particular situation, it’s important to be really clear, if possible, as to who’s responsible.”


Much has been said in recent months about the lack of communication between various emergency response groups in New York on September 11, most notably the city’s police and fire departments. Lack of clear chain-of-command understandings between the two and the failure of communication systems probably led to a disproportionately high number of firefighter fatalities. “In some cases,” says Useem, “you don’t want people to question authority. In such a case, it’s best to prepare before you’re in the zone. The NYPD and fire department are working hard now to ensure that such a breakdown never occurs again. You want redundancy and adequate backups of your system in place, and you have to be testing and preparing.”


Persuasive Power


In the immediate aftermath of the Trade Center tragedy, many in New York looked to people like Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for guidance. Francis Flynn, assistant professor of management at Columbia University, notes that research has shown that charismatic leaders tend to emerge in a crisis situation. “They may come forth as prospective saviors promising to extricate an organization, social group, or nation state from disaster. As they take power, they may express confidence and articulate a vision necessary for an organization’s (or a situation’s) turnaround,” he says.


They also tend to be persuasive. “In the face of significant challenges, the need for leaders to galvanize others and secure from them increased commitment and effort may be paramount. Indeed, during a crisis people often look to leaders for guidance about how to cope with pressing uncertainties,” explains Flynn.


Useem notes that executives of companies involved in the World Trade Center area also stepped up to the plate. “Generally speaking, those in positions of power did rise to the occasion in terms of employee security, making rapid decisions that probably ended up saving thousands of lives. They often stayed with the enterprise. In one case, a chief executive didn’t leave midtown even though he could have, because some employees couldn’t get home. The executives made themselves available to their staff.”


Applying the Lessons


Can firms deliberately call up, at will, the kind of leadership that often only emerges in a moment of urgency? John Kotter, emeritus professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, explains that crises often change entrenched dynamics at an organization. “I know an organization that was overwhelmed with bureaucracy. But within five years it found hundreds of people to play major leadership roles and hundreds of others to play smaller leadership roles. It was the U.S. military during the period of 1938 to 1943, and what it took was a war to blow up everything and put huge demands on the system. It relaxed the constraints that were in place before.


“A crisis demands and allows for action in ways that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” notes Kotter. “What does this mean for an organization? How can it encourage that kind of leadership? Great leaders often create crises or allow crises to occur to shake up the system. Certainly CEOs aren’t going to hire people to terrorize their headquarters, but leaders have created mini-crises to use them as galvanizing motives.”


Once the sense of urgency is past, the manager then has to make sure that people don’t revert to their old ways. “The problem, of course, is that crises have finite lives,” says Kotter. “They demand and permit leadership from lots of people. Once that kind of thinking is out of the box, great leaders don’t let it get stuffed back in. They don’t say, ‘Okay, here’s yet another crisis,’ but they do help people appreciate what’s just happened. They lean against the bureaucracy so it doesn’t creep back and they don’t allow the organization to go back to the steady state.”