No one knows if he is capable of managing a crisis until he faces an extreme situation that goes beyond any imaginable scenario. The crimes of September 11, 2001, were Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani’s trial by fire. “I know that I can be the leader in case of an emergency,” says Giuliani (born in New York in 1944). Giuliani communicates a sense of calm thanks to his serene, almost upbeat expression, which he does not lose when times are difficult – a characteristic often cited by those who were at his side when, as mayor of New York City, he coordinated various emergency initiatives following the terrorist attacks on that day.

Giuliani, who recently visited Spain to participate in the Madrid Expomanagement conference, insists that there is a difference between coordination and interference – a critical distinction to make during the current economic crisis. Just as New York recovered from the impact of the attacks, “the global economy will emerge on its own from this crisis,” even if there have to be bankruptcies, restructurings and mergers. “However, for [recovery] to occur, the government cannot interfere,” he said during the conference. A steadfast defender of economic liberalism, the ex-mayor of New York has become a critic of the measures U.S. President Barack Obama has developed to address the crisis. “What we have to do is reduce governmental spending so we don’t mortgage our future.” In his view, any large-scale infrastructure plans and the rescue of the auto sector could only be financed in two ways: by raising taxes and printing money. “These two alternatives will set off inflation and make the problem worse,” he noted.

Giuliani noted that there have been far more difficult financial crises than the current one, including the stock market crash of 1929. “[That] was a recession that the government turned into a Great Depression.” The measures adopted by the government during that time did not bring about recovery, he added, but rather “it was the Second World War that put an end to the Great Depression because it raised production.”

Addressing those critics who argue that the current recession was caused by a lack of regulatory oversight by government agencies, Giuliani said, “It is as bad to impose too many regulations as to impose two few of them.” The trick is “to regulate those aspects that are important,” but nothing more. “This is common sense,” he said. Meanwhile, he noted he has a more positive view of the rescue plan for financial institutions, “because they are the pillars on which all of the country’s industries are founded.” The aid given to the country’s automakers is “more questionable…. It is not about favoritism, but about studying how critical [the auto sector] is for the rest of [the economy].”

Giuliani is also critical of those who go into the public sector “without having passed through the real world.” In his view, “good politicians are those who are trained in business.” Otherwise, he said, they are left applying only theoretical measures. Although it is still early to say whether or not the Obama proposals will work, Giuliani cited some of his own experiences that have shaped his outlook on the economy. When he became the mayor of New York, for example, he faced a deficit of US$2.3 billion, which he transformed into a surplus thanks to cost-cutting measures. Nevertheless, the city’s recovery efforts following the 9-11 attacks eclipsed that accomplishment, and the valuable management lessons he learned during that time now apply to his work as a businessman and to the founding of his own security company. (In addition, Giuliani is a partner in a law firm.)

A Historic Day

Giuliani noted that he was at a breakfast meeting when he learned that an airplane had crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. “There was total confusion,” he recalled. During the summer of 2001, he had begun to write a book about leadership. However, after the attack, he realized that “you will never understand what you are going to face as a manager in a crisis until you complete your professional career, because there is always something new that you wouldn’t believe you had to face.” When he arrived at the site, he thought about the emergency plans that had been prepared for such situations. Then, he saw a second plane and people leaping from the Trade Center’s windows. “This was something that we had not imagined,” he said. “These events surpassed everything that we had experienced until then — but someone had to do something, and I was that person.” When he realized the urgency of the role he needed to play, a sense of panic spread in him. However, he soon remembered the advice of his father: “In a room that is on fire, only those who stay calm can find the exit.”

“There is no such thing as a perfect decision,” he said. However, a leader cannot lose time when chaos threatens. “The golden rule is to be optimistic and communicate calm,” since that is the only way “you can get energy from people to find solutions, and you don’t waste time thinking about how bad things are.” During the first three days following the attacks, “there wasn’t any time to slow down. There were teams functioning 24 hours a day. We had to regain control of the situation as early as we could.” According to Giuliani, a crisis can only be managed correctly when you are involved at close range, so he decided to go directly to Ground Zero immediately following the attacks. “Some people criticized my decision for putting at risk the civilian leadership of the city, but it was the only thing to do.”

While stationed in a World Trade Center building next to the Twin Towers, he learned that the President was being evacuated in Washington, D.C. “They are going to bomb the White House,” he remembered thinking. A moment later, the first tower collapsed, and Giuliani and other city leaders, such as the chiefs of the police and fire department, were trapped as they worked on coordinating all of the rescue work teams.

It was the cleaning staff that helped Giuliani and his staff escape the building they were in via a corridor that led to another building, which was then turned into a command post. There, every morning, the police, fire department, volunteers, doctors and public administrators met in order to explain what was needed and how to coordinate their efforts. “That’s the way we worked for four months; decisions were made on the fly. When you have to act quickly, bureaucracy does not exist,” he said.

During the first two days, Giuliani spent only five hours at home, and he tried to sleep with the television on and a cell phone in his hand. “It was a difficult situation for the family, but there was no time for anyone.” There was even a moment when he thought that he would have a heart attack. His wife, a nurse, recommended that he spend five minutes relaxing, so he went for a walk in a nearby park. Giuliani does not believe that a leader should bring his stress to his team. “I asked people to [try to] return to normalcy.” For example, some days after the attack, he decided to go to a football game with his son. “Seeing that life went on helped me move forward,” he said. However, after any period of relaxation, “I had to return to the craziness that we were living through.”

To ground himself, he sought inspiration from those who had experienced something similar. “It was the first attack the United States had ever experienced [on its soil], and I didn’t know what to do.” Then he remembered a biography of Winston Churchill that he had in his house. For two hours, he focused on analyzing a chapter about the bombing the people of London lived through during the Second World War. “If the British overcame that within months, then we would do it also.” According to Giuliani, the key is to communicate to people that “human beings are capable of overcoming everything.” Leaders also “have to communicate with transparency” as quickly as possible after the crisis begins, aiming to spread information “as rapidly as possible, and hide nothing — since if you do that, the press will discover it.”

When things are done properly, people are ready to lend a hand, Giuliani learned. “There were more volunteers and donors than we expected.” Even so, he recognizes that there were also management mistakes. “There were [issues] that we were thinking were gigantic, but became small in one day. That’s why I like to hear all opinions. As a lawyer, I like confrontation, although when it comes to the final decision, I always follow my intuition.”

America’s Mayor

Giuliani achieved international recognition as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, the career of this New York lawyer and politician was already pointing that way when he graduated cum laude from Manhattan College. A fan of the New York Yankees, Giuliani had a meteoric career, from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, to Washington, D.C., where he was named chief of staff to the Deputy Attorney General of the United States. In 1994, he became mayor of his home town. He ran for the Senate in 2000, although a health problem forced him to quit. In 2001, his management of the 9-11 crisis earned him the nickname “America’s Mayor.” He used his fame to run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2008, but he ultimately wound up withdrawing.

According to America’s Mayor, the fundamentals for managing a crisis include the following:

  • Listening: “The truth only comes out after confrontation.” Although he follows his intuition when making a final decision, Giuliani likes to hear other opinions.
  • Proximity: “You cannot manage a crisis without getting close up.” You cannot control something that you don’t know.
  • Preparation: “Prepare yourself for too much, and you will be prepared for anything, although there will always be something that will surprise you.”
  • A positive attitude: “The golden rule for a leader is to be an optimist.” That’s the only way you can get the best from people to find solutions.
  • Communication: “You have to communicate goals with transparency to keep the public informed as rapidly as possible.”
  • Realism: “There are no perfect decisions; you have to make them and that’s it.” For Giuliani, a leader has to act and not lose any time by second-guessing things.