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Resilience at Work: Lessons from 9/11

September 11, 2019 marked the 18th anniversary of 9/11. Like many Americans, I will never forget that day. I also continue to draw on lessons I learned on 9/11 and in the uncertain months that followed. 

September 11, 2001 happened to be the first day of a new job—a Senior Research Associate position at the Police Executive Research Forum. PERF carries out research on best practices in policing. It also educates law enforcement professionals and offers executive search support services. Prior to 9/11, I had already accepted my position at PERF. Due to the timing of my arrival, I ended up engaging in different types of conversations with police leaders. These conversations were more intense, intimate, and leadership-focused.  

Like the police professionals we served at PERF, I was impacted by 9/11 and so was my career. At PERF, we all needed to quickly step up and respond to what was required in the moment. As a result, I learned to become deeply committed to outcomes (i.e., working to support our national security). The experience was a lesson in agility. It also taught me that adversity doesn’t build character—it reveals it. 

Serving PERF clients and police executives also shifted the focus of the work I would do in the future. At PERF, I came to appreciate how outstanding leaders cultivate resilience. I also learned how resilience impacts one’s ability to manage uncertainty and make decisions, even in the face of adversity. 

Cultivating Resilience

One of the things I remember most about working with the nation’s law enforcement leaders post-9/11 was their resilience. As many civilians struggled, I encountered countless police leaders who had contained their shock and anger and moved into action. 

Many research studies later, we know that resilience was one of the factors that enabled law enforcement professionals to lead amid adversity after 9/11. There is also evidence that resilience played a role in mitigating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among this population. One 8-year prospective cohort study published in Psychological Medicine found that police responders were less likely to exhibit PTSD. The same study found this population was more likely to present “a resistant/resilient trajectory” than other populations. This reflects the fact that by 2001, the police profession was already actively screening for applicants who exhibit resilience. It was also more likely than other professional fields to offer resilience training

Before 9/11, research on resilience was limited, mainly because it is challenging to study. The events of 9/11 offered researchers an unprecedented opportunity to study the impacts of resilience. One thing these studies have found is that resilience isn’t necessarily innate. Indeed, resilience training can and does help. As a result, officers across the U.S. military now engage in resilience training (e.g., Comprehensive Soldier Fitness). Cultivating resilience, or intentional grit, has also become a greater focus on many U.S. police forces. 

Most business leaders will never face anything like the crisis confronted by police and military leaders post-9/11. But there are valuable leadership lessons we can all learn from how these leaders responded to 9/11. Above all else, 9/11 taught us that resilience is one of the most important differentiators between people who persist and those who stumble in the face of adversity.

Managing Uncertainty

In addition to gaining a deeper appreciation for resilience, during my time at PERF, I came to appreciate what it means to manage uncertainty.

Uncertainty is inherent to life, but immediately after 9/11, uncertainty reached new heights. Typically, one deals with uncertainty using a specific tactic. For example, one might delay action, resort to standard operating procedures, or seek out more information. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, these go-to responses weren’t an option. Rather than delaying action or taking a business-as-usual approach, I saw law enforcement professionals managing uncertainty by confronting it head-on. Their ability to do so reflected the strong culture and shared principles that already guided their work. 

Police leaders weren’t the only ones who did a tremendous job managing uncertainty following the 9/11 attacks. Many business leaders also thrived. A 2002 article by Paul A. Argenti published in the Harvard Business Review found that the ability to manage uncertainty in business was also connected to culture. But as Argenti observed, “Many of the executives we spoke with emphasized that a company cannot start communicating its mission and vision during a crisis. Employees will know what to do only if they have been absorbing the company’s guiding principles all along.”

The take-away here is clear. When we talk about the importance of organizational culture, we’re not just talking about building a nice place to work. A clearly defined corporate culture is also critical to ensuring your organization will thrive in the face of adversity. 

Making Decisions Amid Uncertainty, Change, and Adversity

In my current practice, I still work with some police leaders, but the majority of my clients work in other fields, including venture capital, healthcare, and technology. What strikes me is that across sectors, one of the most common concerns raised by leaders is their ability to make decisions amid change. When I explore this challenge with individual clients and teams, I often remember my work with police leaders in the post-9/11 era. 

Most leaders already have a dominant decision-making style (i.e., decisive, flexible, integrative, or hierarchic). In the profound uncertainty of the post-9/11 era, I was awed by how agile police leaders were as they adjusted their decision-making styles. After all, some decisions had to be made quickly with little time for research or consultation. Other decisions had to be made in a highly integrative manner (i.e., one that acknowledges from the start that there isn’t a single best solution).  

Like all Americans, I hope never to find myself working amid the adversity and uncertainty that followed the 9/11 attacks again. I also remain grateful for everything I learned working with our nation’s law enforcement professionals during that time.

As we mark the passing of another 9/11 anniversary, I urge leaders across sectors to consider what we can continue to learn from how our nation’s police professionals responded to the 9/11 attacks. 


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