Decisions, Not Events, Shaped Leaders After 9/11
From the page: “Ten years after four airliner crashes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, many are reflecting on how those events changed the course of history. But it was not 9/11 itself that changed history: it was our reactions to it — for better and for worse — that altered history. While many have analyzed the actions of our national leaders in response to those terrorist attacks, I’d like to focus in this post on the actions of leaders who did not make the headlines but did make a difference. We can all learn from their example.
For instance, Joe Kearns Goodwin. Kearns, who graduated college in 2001, enlisted in the Army on September 12 of that year. When asked on NBC’s Meet the Press by host David Gregory how 9/11 had defined his generation, Goodwin demurred and said 9/11 did not define his generation anymore than Pearl Harbor had defined the Greatest Generation who fought in World War II.
Goodwin, a former Army captain who served two tours, one in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, responded as one who has been in a leadership position. Events do not define the leader; events create the context for the leader’s response. When events unfolded, Goodwin responded by deciding to serve.
This distinction is necessary when considering a leader’s role in a crisis — especially as the years of the previous decade now seem so bleak, marred as they have been by two wars, a dismal economy, and miserably high rates of unemployment. If we’re in a state of perma-crisis, the answer is not to dwell on the negative, but to decide how we will respond. We must own the consequences of our actions in moments like these; we must hold ourselves accountable. History certainly will.
Consider the examples of leadership and service seen in the very minutes after the attack on the Twin Towers, when first responders raced to the scene. As we know now from multiple investigations, New York City fire officials knew soon enough that the towers could not be saved, but that lives could be — that is why so many firefighters raced up the doomed skyscrapers to bring as many people as they could to safety. Some 16,000 workers were evacuated, many owing their lives to 343 firefighters and paramedics who died when the buildings fell.
Remember also the more than 2.3 million who have served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 7,400 have been killed, tens of thousands seriously wounded, and perhaps a majority altered forever by memories of what occurred in the battle zone. They have been changed by these events, but these events do not define them. All were volunteers; when events happened, they decided how to respond, and how to lead.
September 11, 2001 was a seminal day in history and a terrible tragedy. The decade that followed has left a grim legacy. But it has also seen the kind of leadership that comes from putting service ahead of self.
As we recall memories from 9/11 — where we were, the people we lost, and all that came after — let’s also reflect on that.”