The alarm rang early. I tumbled out of bed that September 11 anxious for the day to start. It was to be no ordinary workday for me, but rather the celebratory culmination of the most intense work experience of my life. September 11, 2001 was the publication date for Jack: Straight From the Gut, my collaboration with General Electric Co. chairman Jack Welch.
The day’s calendar was packed with publicity-generating events, including an 11 AM press conference to officially launch the book. Before leaving my New Jersey home for New York, I flipped on NBC’s Today to catch Jack’s first promotional interview with cohost Matt Lauer at 7:15 AM Then I jumped into my car for the commute to the city.
It was while listening to Don Imus on the radio that I first heard that an airplane had smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Thinking it a distasteful Imus joke, I actually turned to another station in disgust. I didn’t realize it was true until I was driving across the George Washington Bridge, when I spotted the smoke billowing from the north tower.
A day filled with great anticipation abruptly became a day of unimaginable horror. The book into which I had poured a year of my life rightly lost all importance. The press conference and tour were canceled. Jack, who viewed the unfolding disaster from the green room in the Today studio, put it best: “We had been talking about September 11 for one year, and then 30 minutes into what was to be for me the day of days ended up being the night of nightmares.”
By the time I reached my office at Business Week magazine, the second plane had smashed into the south tower. As the magazine’s editors huddled in a conference room, the news became ever more frightening. One editor dashed inside with the horrifying report of a third plane hitting the Pentagon. Suddenly, we all felt vulnerable sitting in a Rockefeller Center skyscraper in the middle of New York.
At 10:05 AM, the south tower collapsed. Then, 24 minutes later, the north. My colleagues gasped and sobbed as the World Trade Center, once visible from our 43rd floor vantage point, became a shapeless mass of dark gray clouds.
It’s been two years since that horrific day, and to commemorate the event, we revisit two heroic leaders — James Dunne and John Duffy — whose companies were headquartered in the WTC (“Two Leaders, Two Years Later,” page 74). In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, their employees rallied around the urgency, camaraderie, and sense of mission.
Today the challenge is dramatically different. Getting things done, from the nitty-gritty details to the big picture stuff, is more of a grind. It feels less heroic. Yet, what Dunne and Duffy teach us is at the core of sustained success. It is the very notion of renewal, of our ability to learn and to grow, to recover from defeats and to live life with vigor and resilience.
This is the same challenge that confronts all of us in our daily work. Our “capacity for renewal,” as the late author and activist John W. Gardner wrote, is what summons us to greatness. The reason these two investment-banking boutiques have triumphed over tragedy is that their leaders and people refused to wither and die in the face of this great crime. They passionately cared about their work, their employees, their value to business and to society.
“The renewal of societies and organizations,” Gardner so aptly wrote, “can go forward only if someone cares. Apathy and lowered motivation are the most widely noted characteristics of a civilization on the downward path.
Apathetic men accomplish nothing. Men who believe in nothing change nothing for the better. They renew nothing and heal no one, least of all themselves . . . If we falter, it will be a failure of heart and spirit.”
As all of us recall exactly where we were and how we heard of this atrocious tragedy, let us also remember to bring heart and spirit to all that we do. There can be no more fitting remembrance of those who lost their lives on that day in September.