Leadership and 9/11

What we can learn from how Americans felt after tragedy

Sep 13, 2022. | By Will Hurd

Will Hurd Dalle Image 9/11

Photo by DALL-E

Two days after the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, an attack that killed 2,977 Americans and injured thousands more, The Pew Research Center conducted their first poll on how 9/11 was impacting American psyche and culture. They have continued polling on this topic for twenty-one years.

A Scared America

In their first poll and subsequent polling throughout the summer of 2002, they painted a picture of an America that was depressed, scared and fundamentally different:

  • In Pew’s first poll they found, “71% of Americans said they felt depressed, nearly half (49%) had difficulty concentrating and a third said they had trouble sleeping because of the attacks.”
  • In polling throughout the fall of 2001, Pew found “Most Americans said they were very (28%) or somewhat (45%) worried about another attack. When asked a year later to describe how their lives changed in a major way, about half of adults said they felt more afraid, more careful, more distrustful or more vulnerable as a result of the attacks.”
  • By August of 2002, “half of U.S. adults said the country ‘had changed in a major way’ – a number that actually increased, to 61%, 10 years after the event.”

A Unified America

Despite being depressed, scared and different (or maybe because of these feelings), in the weeks and months that followed the 9/11 attacks Americans showed a rare spirit of shared public unity:

  • News organizations received record-high ratings for professionalism - 69% of Americans said news organizations “stand up for America,” while 60% said the media protected democracy.
  • 60% of adults expressed trust in the federal government – a level not reached in the previous three decades, nor approached in the two decades since then.
  • 86% of adults – including nearly all Republicans (96%) and a sizable majority of Democrats (78%) – approved of the way George W. Bush was handling his job as president.

A Short-lived 9/11 Effect

In the years following 9/11, there had been a number of leadership lapses like The Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession that eroded the trust Americans had in their institutions.

...in the weeks and months that followed the 9/11 attacks Americans showed a rare spirit of shared public unity...

The “9/11 effect” on public opinion was short-lived. By 2005, following the government’s mishandling of the relief effort for victims of Hurricane Katrina – just 31% said they trusted the federal government, half the share who said so in the months after 9/11.

Inspiration, Not Fearmongering

On 9/11, George W. Bush was only ten months into his first year as President. His inauguration was preceded by lengthy and contentious legal wrangling since he had won Florida by only 537 votes which resulted in a 271-266 victory in the Electoral College. This was the closest electoral vote margin since 1876 when Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden by just one electoral vote. 

How did President George W. Bush get almost all Republicans and more than three quarters of Democrats believing in him when he had just won the Presidency by one of the closest electoral margins less than a year before? He showed leadership.

  • Leadership is the art of inspiring others to achieve more than they thought possible. It is about setting a vision and then mobilizing people to turn that vision into reality. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: the ability to inspire those around them.

George W. Bush helped get the country through such a difficult time because during one of the worst periods in our history he inspired, rather than fearmongered. 

The 4 Ingredients of Inspiration

As a people, we want to believe in something larger than ourselves. We want to be inspired. While I was in Congress, whenever we polled my constituents, “lack of leadership in Washington, DC” always came up as their number one or number two concern. When the country sees leadership, it is unified – 9/11 is the case and point. When the country sees a lack of leadership, we are fractured – we have too many examples of this reality.

...we want to believe in something larger than ourselves. We want to be inspired.

To be a  leader who inspires rather than fearmongers, you have to do four things:

  1. Be honest and do the right thing. Being honest and doing the right thing may not always be easy, but when we do it we build trust and respect with others. Doing the right thing will make us feel proud of ourselves and our accomplishments, it also sets a good example for others to follow. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” 
  2. Ensure your audio and video match. Actions may speak louder than words, but your words must match your actions to be credible and trustworthy. Alignment of what you say (your audio) with what you do (your video) is what creates trust.
  3. Don’t pander, build trust. Pandering is building a relationship with someone by telling them what they want to hear or giving them something they want because it will be good for you not necessarily for them. Trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built and can only be done by being honest and real.
  4. Focus on what unites us, not what divides us. I don’t care where you live, how old you are or what political affiliation you identify with. We all care about the same things – putting a roof over our head, ensuring we have food on our tables, and enabling our loved ones to be healthy, happy, and safe.

Spanish-born American 20th Century philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I hope remembering the leadership lessons from 9/11 allows us to repeat the period of unity that it created.

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