The Twin Towers were tumbling. Pedestrians panicked and ran for their lives. Brave first responders charged up staircases into danger zones, attempting to rescue men and women trapped by terror.
How did you respond to the shock of two airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?
Most of us were far from the wreckage, staring at televisions, not physically in danger and yet emotionally shaken. We all remember that day and where we were when we heard or witnessed the attack.
Unfortunately, I also remember my boss at the time who did not rise to the occasion.
I’ve always been passionate about the not-so-common common sense of leadership. About the way some leaders can naturally raise the energy of a room, whereas others flippantly deplete every ounce of morale and goodwill.
That said, there is no leadership book out there with specific instructions for what to do when your country is in the throes of a terrorist attack at the beginning of a business day. There are no “pointers”, such as:
- Do not assign more work
- Consider extending deadlines on must-have assignments
- Do not express indifference
Perhaps it’s not outlined in leadership training because one might expect all of the above to be common sense.
That Day: September 11, 2001/9:00 a.m.
I was in a meeting as a design engineer at the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan. As I left that meeting, I saw my colleagues gathering in the hallway staring at a couple TV monitors. Normally they would walk by and only glimpse at stock market tickers and the morning news. This time, they were all mesmerized.
I tip-toed through the crowd to get a better look at what fixated everyone. A plane had crashed into a building. Okay. But how could a pilot make such a disastrous mistake? It was a bright sunny day with clear skies.
Still a bit confused, I made my way to the next meeting, where we engaged in a rambling conversation about torque curves and other inane technical details that could hold the interest of engineers only. Then a colleague stepped into the room to tell us that a second plane had struck the towers. Alarms began ringing in our heads. This was no accident. We were concerned, even a bit rattled.
Yet my boss, who was leading the meeting, kept driving the conversation back to graphs and charts. He was a young engineer who recently had been promoted to supervisor. I don’t doubt his technical skills, but in that moment, it was clear that he lacked the L-Factor: Leadership. He seemed unphased and uninterested in the news.
Once the longest meeting ever finally adjourned, I raced to the hallway to learn the latest news on the TV monitors. Suddenly the attack had become very personal. One of my best and dearest friends worked downtown Washington D.C.— close to where a third plane had just struck the Pentagon.
It felt like the world had shifted into slow motion. Fear set in. My chest tightened. And my head spun. A loved one was innocently sitting at the bullseye of a terrorist attack.
At my desk, I dialed every number I had for my bestie. Busy signal. Busy signal. Busy signal. The tension and frustration nearly choked me. But I did my best to hide it and look busy as my boss walked past my workstation.
Numb, unable to concentrate on graphs and charts, I kept pacing the hallway so I could catch the news updates while speed-dialing my friend. More busy signals! I was about to implode when it was announced that our building was closing as a safety measure, and employees were asked to go home. I could not get out of that building fast enough.
That Day: September 11, 2001/11:25 a.m.
I was a few steps into the parking deck, when I received a message from my boss (Some details are foggy, but I think it was on my pager—remember those?).
I noticed you forgot your laptop. We need updated charts and graphs for the 9 a.m. meeting tomorrow morning. Remember?
You want me to do what?
Rage roared within me. How could this guy be completely unphased by the seriousness of this event? How could he not empathize with the young engineer—me!— who he now knew had a loved one in the line of fire in Washington, D.C.?
I marched back to my desk in tears, reeling from his message and hoping I would run into him. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but I had hundreds of fierce choice words racing through my mind:
As my anger cooled, I was distraught that my supervisor, who apparently reflected the company’s values, had not shown an ounce of talent for leadership. He had not set an example, one that included empathy, compassion, even vulnerability.
That night, like most Americans, I spent hours watching the news, in deep shock and mourning. I don’t remember sleeping much, but I do remember setting my alarm clock for 5 a.m. so that I could get my charts and graphs done in time for my morning meeting. I hoped this effort would demonstrate to my boss that I was a committed and reliable employee.
The Day After: September 12, 2001/8 a.m.
I was prepared for my meeting that morning, but not for the response I received. My colleagues and boss were shocked that I had finished the graphs that were so important for the morning talkathon. They looked at me as though I was unaware of the gravity of 9/11.
I felt embarrassed and betrayed.
Now, 20 years later, I coach and train over 100 leaders per year. We work through the challenges each will face on their path to being a Best Boss Ever. I ask them to reflect on the leadership legacy they are creating. What will they regret or be most proud of when they retire and look back on a long career, that involved countless decisions? And what will others recall?
I believe many people, me included, will remember their most emotionally charged days at work. They’ll remember how their boss responded after learning that their dad just died. Or when they announced a pregnancy.
Many memories will be shaped by the pandemic era. How do leaders respond when an employee says he or she must homeschool two children under five and therefore can’t possibly meet the deadline for that big virtual meeting leadership has planned. There will be countless other tough situations that employees will share with the hope that their leader may offer support and understanding.
You don’t have to perfect to become a Best Boss Ever. We all know we’ll make mistakes in key moments and will likely never get a chance to make up for that blunder.
Even so, by opening our hearts as well as our minds to those we work with in the moments that count, I believe many leaders can easily attain the title Best Boss Ever.