Every one of you reading this remembers where you were on that tragic day in 2001 when the planes struck the World Trade Center Towers. I was in my office at the Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics, near the campus of John Brown University in Northwest Arkansas, when one of our administrative assistants told me the news of the first plane hitting the towers. I immediately went from our little off campus offices to the main campus to find a television set, where I sat with a dozen or so students in stunned silence as we watched the horror of that tower in flames, and then with greater horror as the second plane struck the other tower, and more so as we heard about the attacks on the Pentagon and the thwarted attack of Flight 93 on the White House. Our horror was at its peak as we watched people jumping out of windows in attempts to save their lives, and ultimately, as the two towers collapse in a heap of rubble, ash and smoke.
The emotions of that morning are difficult to put into words, because they range from numbness to fear, to anger, to grief, to incredible loss, to compassion, to empathy, to helplessness and to a sense that this truly cannot be happening.
Like many of you, I did what I could at the time, which was call friends, loved ones, and colleagues to share this moment with them, to remind them that I love them, and to determine whether there was anything that could or should be done to support them.
What I remember most, was the next couple of hours of silence from everyone except the television reporters. We really did not know what had happened and we really did not know what the next step would be. And finally, the voices of leadership came through crisp and clear.
There were three voices that brought everything back in focus for me. The first was Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was the first official to remind the people of New York and all of America of who we are, what we are made of, and how we will get through this incredibly tragedy. I don’t know about you, but I really needed that reminder. When it seemed as if our world was being destroyed and a major threat was intent on destroying us, Giuliani reminded us that we will never let such cowards destroy the spirit of who we are.
The second voice was that of President George Bush. It seemed like forever, before we finally heard from him, but when we did, he expressed the anger and rage that every American felt. I grew up in Texas where courage was king and toughness was a badge of honor. When the president came on with his Texas rhetoric and promised that we would do everything in our power to find and bring to justice the terrorist who did this, to rout them out, smoke them out and hunt them down, I was once again reminded who we are, the mission in front of us, and the faith and courage it would take to see it through.
The third voice came late that evening when the people of Arkansas finally heard from their Governor, Mike Huckabee. His summary was the most memorable of all I had heard that day, as he, like the others, reminded us who we are. He also reminded us whose we are, that we are children of God, and under His protection; that we are people of faith, of hope, and of love, all of which are essential for getting through such a tragedy.
Those three voices of leadership were exactly what I needed that day. They gave me hope, courage and determination in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances. I know that leaders are not made with speeches. That is obvious from our current Speechmaker in Chief. Leadership is most evident where the rubber meets the road. These three moved from great speeches to great action. Giuliani mobilized the nation to reclaim New York. Bush crystallized the efforts of the nation our security and on bringing our terrorist enemies to justice. Huckabee returned us to our faith, to our national hope and optimism, and to love and compassion, all of which are foundational to our nation’s success and prosperity.
I am thankful for leaders who speak well, and especially for those who follow their words with tangible results.