Strength in the Crucible of Crisis

We've now entered the sixth month of an unfolding international crisis in Ukraine. An upheaval that began with protests against the country's leadership has become a struggle whose peaceful resolution (or dramatic escalation) now rests in the hands of its new leadership -- and on the judgment calls of a small group of political powers to the country's East and West. For those at the heart of such a crisis, every moment is critical. The ramifications of every decision are pivotal. The fate of many rests in the hands of a few. There is no margin for error.

As spectators to the global stage, we will watch situation unfold with anxious curiosity -- but how would we respond if we were in the position to make course-altering, life-changing decisions? What's it like to lead through the crucible of crisis?

I began the research for my upcoming book, View from the Top, in the early years of the new millennium, when the memory of September 11, 2001, was still fresh, and when almost every major national security decision and many business decisions were made under the long shadow cast by those attacks. And I found, as I conducted my interviews with senior leaders in government, nonprofits and businesses, that the events of 9/11/2001 served to make evident the essential leadership character of almost all who were involved in the day's decision-making. Crises do not mold character; they simply reveal it.

What follow are stories from that day, excerpted from the book. They show us how the preparedness and fortitude of our leaders, and the organizational habits of our institutions, are brought into great clarity amid times of intense crisis:

Richard Clarke, National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, managed National Security Council (NSC) proceedings in the Situation Room immediately following the first attacks.

The NSC was anticipating that another plane would hit the White House. As we now know, this crash was ultimately forestalled by the brave actions of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, but the expectation at the time added an additional layer of tension to the NSC's work. In his interview, Clarke told me they were "beyond being nervous" and that nothing could have truly prepared them for that experience. "No matter how much you make those exercises realistic, you know they're not," he said. "People were dying; people I knew were dying, had died. [We in the White House] thought we would. But it focuses the mind."

Clarke had the experience and the know-how to lead the National Security Council -- and indeed the White House -- in its important work of gathering information for the decisions that needed to be made. In the midst of a crisis, leaders like Clarke, with a lifetime of preparation, take control and keep their staff focused by deploying necessary authority. Most of their influence in that moment, however, has already been secured through the moral authority they earned over years of hard work and diligent preparation.

Mike Fenzel, a White House Fellow serving in Richard Clarke's office who helped manage the overwhelming flow of information as it came in, took decisive action when he realized Vice President Cheney, who was gathered with senior White House staff in the President's Emergency Operation Center, was not in receiving all of the critical details required for his duties that day.

Fenzel left the Situation Room and -- after some trouble -- gained access to the PEOC. [...] Once in the PEOC, Fenzel turned up the volume on the Counterterrorism Security Group meeting feed and turned down the volume on CNN. He also established a phone connection between Cheney and the Situation Room. Fenzel introduced himself to Cheney and explained that he would take notes and help provide the vice president with the relevant information he needed. Fenzel realized that he was playing a unique and necessary role. "Here are all these important people. This is what struck me," he said. "Amazing talent. Great leaders. But they can't make a decision if they don't have information. So I realized my job is going to be to provide them the information they need." Fenzel stepped up in a variety of ways that day -- from penning lines for the president's national address to crawling under the table to retrieve Mary Matalin's glasses. He did not wait to receive orders but stepped in to ameliorate the situation in which he found himself.

Brenda Berkman, a former lawyer who fought for gender equality in the New York City Fire Department, became one of New York City's first female firefighters, added to the force in 1977 after she won a lawsuit striking down discriminatory practices in the Department's physical tests.

When the towers went down on September 11, Berkman responded in the way that was instinctive for her -- as a firefighter. That historic morning, she was off-duty but borrowed the extra gear of another firefighter -- a man who would die that day -- and joined the fray as she made her way to the burning World Trade Center complex. When Berkman saw the smoke from the towers, she did not sift through possible responses and their various repercussions. She did what she had been doing every day for the past quarter-century. When sacrificial actions such as pulling people out of burning buildings are repeated daily, they become automatic. They cause a firefighter -- whether man or woman -- to run toward the smoking tower rather than away.

Certainly, not all leaders respond to crisis with the decisive presence that Clarke, Fenzel, and Berkman exhibited. We are sometimes ashamed by our leaders when they react with weak wills, easy answers, or even cowardice, when faced with a critical moment. And others -- even Richard Clarke, who soon distanced himself from the White House and became something of a scapegoat for Republican leaders -- will not be able to transfer the authority of their initial leadership roles over into more adaptive phases of crisis management.

But our greatest leaders guide us decisively through the crucible of crisis with a strength of character formed long before the moment came to act. Let us hope that the leaders charged with guiding the world through this critical situation in Ukraine draw from a similar well of fortitude and character.


This month, my new book, View from the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World, will be released by John Wiley & Sons. The book is the culmination of an extensive ten-year research initiative during which I interviewed 550 of the most powerful CEOs, government leaders and nonprofit executives in America. I hope the insights and anecdotes within prove helpful and informative -- not only to those like me who study leadership, but also to those who aspire to leadership positions themselves, and who wish to wield their power responsibly and effectively. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some selections from View from the Top in anticipation of the book's release on May 12.