Daniel Darling Christian Blog and Commentary

Leadership Lessons of 9/11

  • Daniel Darling

    Daniel Darlingis the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He previously served as the Senior VP for Communications at National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and VP of Communications…

  • 2011 Sep 08


This week is a sober one as we look back on the tragedy of 9/11. I’m amazed at how many of the memories come flooding back as I read the article and watch some of the clips. I recently read through my copy of WorldMagazine, who did a fantastic job with some original reporting and retrospectives.

9/11 offered some powerful lessons in leadership. Most everyone, outside of the leftwing fever swamps, agrees that President Bush and Mayor Rudy Guliani were exemplary in their leadership after 9/11. You may not agree with all of their politics or perhaps decisions made afterword, etc. but in the days after the tragedy, America was led well.

What does 9/11 teach us about leadership? I’ve found three compelling things:

Leadership is facing unknown crises. We typically select our political leaders based on a whole host of reasons, such as their position on health care, moral issues, fiscal issues, national security issues. Sometimes we forget to ask ourselves, What kind of man or woman is this? Are they competent to lead?

President Bush had no idea that there would be a massive terrorist attack only a few months into his administration. He didn’t run on national security issues. He had a whole host of things he likely wanted to accomplish. And yet, 9/11 happened and he was the guy left rallying a country and leading our effort to bring the offenders to justice. And it’s always like this in leadership. There will be crises in your leadership over which you have little control. There will be events, trials, tragedies that will blindside you. How will you handle them? Will you lead well the people under you? This is something to consider for yourself and when choosing leaders. We’ve seen other public crises where leaders seemed out of depth, didn’t respond well, and had no ability to reassure a frightened people. We've experienced events in our own lives with similarly bad leadership. Good leaders seem to have the flexibility, humility, and selflessness to lead in moments they didn’t expect. I think this comes back to simple faith in the sovereignty and goodness of God. 

Leadership is about character Leaders who desire to serve, who are selfless will respond well in a crises. Character and integrity matter most when the chips are down, when you don’t know where to turn or what to do. There are opportunities in a crises to seek your own glory or to use it to advance an agenda. There are temptations to wonder you you personally will fare when it is all said and done. But character (formed, I would argue, by a strong faith in Christ) keeps you’re eye on the ball. A crisis doesn’t make a leader, but it does reveal his character. It strips away the pretense, the pretending, the slogans, the smiles and lays bare a man or woman’s soul.

Leadership is about vision. In the days after 9/11, I felt Rudy Giuliani and President Bush and other leaders did a good job of being blunt about the extent of the tragedy, but they also projected a sense of moving forward. What most people were thinking after watching those towers fall was, Are we going to be okay? Will America move on? There’s typically chaos after a tragedy. The leader has to carefully thread the needle between empathy, which is needed, and resolute courage. He has to be more measured than the people he leads. He must not go overboard with a sense of vengeance and yet he has to communicate that the necessary steps will be taken to make sure justice is done.

The bottom line: Leaders are often elected on a platform, because of a variety of issues, and often based on less than important things like their looks, their presence on TV, and other inanities. But they’re mettle is tested when a crises hits. And so as we think back on 9/11 and move forward, we should be wise to vote for leaders who we’d want leading us in a time of trouble and we’d be wise to allow Christ to develop in us the character necessary to lead well where we are called.