Unforeseen conditions are unexpected and unavoidable. They happen without our permission. Every leader WILL experience these conditions at some point in their journeys.
I was Nineteen years old, a sophomore in college, working parks maintenance for the city, and venturing into adulthood when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 happened. It was the most notable of unforeseen conditions in my lifetime. I got up that morning like every other American, got prepared for my day, and headed into work. There was ZERO chance that I could have foreseen what would transpire that day.
Never in my life has there been a day in which the world started one way and ended so dramatically different. People died, heroes emerged, our lives forever changed. The leadership and resolve of our country was put to the test.
In this week’s post, I look back to the events of that day and reflect on five leadership lessons on how to deal with unforeseen conditions:
I will never forget the reports coming across the truck radio as I was returning to the office from a job site. In the truck with me, was my childhood friend who actually grew up in New York. The message was so unbelievable and difficult to process that it did not sink in until we arrived at the office and turned on the news. The sobering images of the planes hitting the towers caused us to pause.
As a city, we followed suit with decisions around the country to cancel all public activities that evening. As much as everyone’s emotions wanted to move forward and demonstrate that we will not live in fear, a pause was necessary.
When we run into unforeseen conditions in our leadership world, the best thing to do is to first, pause. Things we don’t see coming rattle us, they disrupt our conventional thought processes, and generate unbridled emotion in us. In those moments, the best thing to do is to pause. The pause slows things down and allows us to think clearer. Then we are able to get ourselves under control and get things in order.
I was coaching youth football at the time. With practice cancelled that evening, there was an abnormal amount of time to reflect on the day’s events. In the midst of such an unfathomable event, none of us knew what tomorrow would bring. For me, I reflected on the importance of my family and community, thought about those first responders on the scenes, gratitude for the military who would quickly move to ensure this would not happen again, and deep consideration for what I valued most as a Human Being. The leaders in our country grappled with the who, the how, and the why of what happened.
Following an encounter with unforeseen conditions, great leaders first pause, then enter a period of reflection. We evaluate the situation, figure out what went wrong, how did it go wrong, and why it went wrong. Reflection requires space. It requires leaders being able to slow down long enough to process the existing conditions and develop a plan moving forward. This can be difficult when it feels like the situation and sometimes our world is falling apart. Reflection is key for recovery.
Before I had left work, I took a 1’x1′ piece of lumber, attached a flag to it, and strapped it to the tailgate of my truck. In a drive home I will never forget, I remember one guy basically hanging halfway out his window giving me a double thumbs up (still don’t know how he was keeping it on the road). It was the beginning of an unbelievable unification that would unfold.
We quickly became Americans who shared common pain, anger, and resolve to avenge what had happened to our country that day. Our insignificant differences were put aside to unite against a common enemy. We held hands with strangers, shed tears with people of difference backgrounds, prayed with others of different faiths, and we mourned the loss of people we had never met. We paused, reflected, then united.
Whenever unforeseen conditions create conflict, chaos, and calamity in our worlds, leaders unite their teams. They become the calm in the midst of the storm. Their followers’ eyes magnetically draw towards the leader. Things we don’t see coming create uncertainty, which can lead us to self-preservation. It is the role of the leader to mend the circumstances and bring people together. The response to unforeseen conditions should be met with a unified team, not a mass of individuals. A team can respond to the challenges together and overcome the conditions.
One thing that started to become clear late that evening, was that tomorrow was coming. We didn’t know what it held, but we sure didn’t want to stay where we were. The following day, as the dust settled, the process forward began.
It’s kind of like a prize fighter getting caught with a surprise left hook and getting knocked to the canvas. Their plan wasn’t to be in that situation. Things become fuzzy in the moment, but all they know is they must get up. They aren’t worried about how the rest of the fight will play out, they just start the process of getting to their feet. They roll off their back, press their gloves against the mat, get to their knees, then to their feet. Comebacks are not possible laying on one’s back.
Unforeseen conditions can blindside us. It’s the left hook we didn’t see coming. Before we know what it us, disorientation demands that we collect ourselves. It is easy to fall into the trap as leaders that we need to have it all together, to make it look like the punch didn’t hurt. We can try to get up too quickly and try to take on the situation without having our bearings back. The best thing to do is to move forward incrementally. Figure out how to get off your back, slowly work your way up, and win the later rounds. Great fighters win the later rounds, so do great leaders.
Two words will be forever tied to September 11, 2001, NEVER FORGET. Fortunately, we have not experienced an attack of this magnitude since then. We learned from the answers to the questions of the who, the how, and the why and have put measures in place to hopefully prevent anything this catastrophic from ever happening again.
The easy thing to do when we experience unforeseen conditions is to want to forget them. The infliction on our pride caused by the reality of the circumstances and our role in not preventing it from happening can cause us to want to tuck the entire situation away. Instead, great leaders never forget what happened. They certainly don’t get Stuck there, but use it as a foundation to build a better future for them and their people. Our failures and “fall shorts” can be our most painful, yet most valuable learning experiences if we never forget them.
September 11, 2001 was one of those, Where Were You When Moments for my generation. As time continues to pass and we are twenty-one years removed from that infamous day, I never want to forget the emotions I felt that day, the people who unnecessarily lost their lives, the heroism I watched unfold by first responders and our military, and the unification of our country I so deeply desire for us to return to.
I wanted to close with links to three videos that I watch ever September 11. These videos are reminders of that historic day. They are the stories of Welles Crowthers (The Red Bandana) who lost his life going back into the World Trade Centers to save others, President George W. Bush’s “Bullhorn Speech” from the rubble of Ground Zero, and Bush’s throwing out of the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. All three still give me goosebumps to this day, I highly encourage you to take some time out of your day to watch them.
How we respond to unforeseen conditions WILL define us as leaders. Pause, reflect, unite, get up, and never forget. Unexpected and unavoidable does not afford us preparation, we are measured by our response. Our organizations, the people that follow us, and our communities will never forget that response. Ever.