Yesterday Marlene and I flew back from Harrisburg through Atlanta to Tupelo. We were joined on the first leg of our journey by Michael and Jo Beth Loftis. When we got to Atlanta, they headed east across the Atlantic to London, and we headed west for Tupelo. That meant that we had several hours together on the plane and in the Atlanta airport. On the flight down, Michael and I talked quite a bit about the necessary traits of leadership in any organization. As the president of ABWE, Michael oversees a thriving outreach involving over 1200 missionaries in 80 countries (with hundreds of children added to that number), a home office of over a hundred people, and a yearly budget of $43 million. Michael's number one job is to cast the vision that will unite all the various parts of ABWE's growing worldwide ministry.
At one point he said that he wanted to write an article about the qualities a successful leader must have. The first one is guts. "You never read about guts in a leadership book, but you can't be a good leader without guts." In every organization there are people who love to solve problems, and there are people who enjoy implementing projects. The number of people who truly enjoy leadership is small indeed. It's always easy to tackle a hard problem by saying, "Let's appoint a committee" or, "Let's restructure what we're doing." That gives the appearance of movement when in fact it may be a way of delaying positive action. Years ago I read In Search of Excellence by Robert Waterman and Tom Peters. One chapter title sticks in the mind: "A Bias for Action." The tagline underneath read, "Ready, Fire, Aim."
In any great endeavor, there comes a moment when you have to stop talking and make a decision. You can't sit around forever discussing the options, writing papers, and considering yet one more alternative. Someone at some point has to stand up and stay, "Put this one on my tab. We're going to take that hill. If we fail, blame me. But that's where we're going, and we're not going to sit around talking about it any more."
A few days ago I watched a TV special called The Flight That Fought Back, about the heores of United Flight 93 who fought back against the terrorists on 9/11. One of the leaders was Todd Beamer whose final recorded words were, "Are you ready? Let's roll." The documentary examined the background of many of the passengers and crew members who perished that day. Two things stood out in my mind. First, these were ordinary people, just a random group of Americans thrown together in a crisis situation they could never have anticipated. Second, the decision to fight back against the hijackers was made on the basis of information gathered from phone calls that was sketchy, incompete, contradictory and confusing. At first they thought it was a "normal" hijacking, which is what the terrorists wanted them to think. Over a period of an hour and twenty minutes, as word filtered in of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it became clear that there was nothing normal about their situation. The program vividly portrayed the confusion on board as different passengers got little snippets of information from loved ones on the crowd who themselves were confused about what was going on. It's fair to say that the passengers came to a decision to act without having all the information they might have wanted. But they acted anyway. When the plane crashed into the crowd in Pennsylvania, it was less than 20 minutes from Washington.
I can do little to add to the praise these heroes deserve for sacrificing their lives to save the Capitol. It doesn't seem likely that they realized where they were or that the plane was heading for Washington. What they did, they did on the basis of the information they had, which was fragmentary at best. They could have waited another 30 minutes to act, and they would have died anyway when the plane crashed into the Capitol, causing even greater death and giving the terrorists another victory. As it was, they died in a fiery inferno in a Pennsylvania field.
They did what they could, acting on the information they had, and they didn't even live to see what they accomplished. But they did it anyway.
In every human endeavor, there comes a moment when someone has to step up and take responsibility. Someone has to say, "Are you ready? Let's roll." That's leadership guts.
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