3 Things Resilient Leaders Do

Posted 09.12.2011

Memorial1 Watching the ceremonies on TV yesterday, I was struck by the beauty of the 9/11 memorial in New York. It’s a park built around the footprints of the World Trade Center towers and waterfalls flow into the footprints. Looking at the memorial, I was reminded of the first time I saw Ground Zero after the attacks. I had worked on Wall Street a block and a half from the WTC in the late 1980’s so I knew the area pretty well prior to the attacks. The Trade Center had been my subway stop in those days.

My first trip there after 9/11 was in the Fall of 2005. I had a client in the Wall Street area and flew from Dulles to Newark on an early morning flight and eventually caught the PATH train to go underneath the Hudson and into lower Manhattan. What I hadn’t realized when I booked the arrangements was that the PATH train station was at Ground Zero. As the train came out and up from under the river, it emerged into the foundation where one of the Towers had stood. My first view of the site was literally from the inside out. The view out the window was so unexpected, that it literally took my breath away. It almost overwhelmed me. I started looking around the train to see if anyone else was having a similar reaction.

No one was. It took me a few moments to realize why. These people who were on the train, reading their newspapers or listening to their music, were on another daily commute to their jobs. They took this trip everyday of the week. A lot of them had probably made the same trip prior to 9/11 and now, a few years later, they were back to doing what they do.

It hit me then how resilient human beings can be. I’ve thought a lot about that since then and have, in observing my own life and the lives of others, identified what I think are three characteristics of the kind of people who bounce back. Whether they’re bouncing back from a world changing tragedy or a common disappointment, here are some of the things I’ve noticed about resilient people and resilient leaders:

  • They have a bigger purpose:  I read an interview in the New York Times with Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond trading firm that lost most of its employees when the first Tower collapsed. Today, the firm is bigger than it was before the attack. Lutnick said in the interview that he didn’t want to go back to work but called his remaining executives the evening of 9/11 and said they had two choices. They could either hang it up or they could go back to work and do what they could to take care of the families of the victims. Taking care of the survivors became the purpose that enabled him and the firm to bounce back.
  • They control what they can control:  It’s easy to become overwhelmed by tragedy and misfortune, especially something as incomprehensible as the 9/11 attacks. Resilient people have a talent for blocking out the factors they can’t control and focusing on the ones they can. Those are usually tangible but important things like establishing communications. In the case of Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the first things Lutnick did was publicize a telephone number for remaining members of the company to call and check in. From there, the focus turned to temporarily shifting trading operations to London so when Wall Street opened six days after the attacks, Cantor would be present in the markets.
  • They don’t worry much about what might happen:  Whether they’re believers or not, resilient people seem to live what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  It would have been easy after 9/11 for people like Howard Lutnick to become paralyzed with the fear of what might happen next and just shut down. He didn’t do that. Instead, he got to work and day by day took care of the Cantor families by rebuilding his company.

What have you learned about resilience along the way? What do you do to bounce back? What can leaders do to build resilience in themselves and others?