” The Imagination Was There”

Jamie Gorelick, a 9/11 Commission member and partner in the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, has been sharing the lessons of 9/11 with clients and business groups since the book’s release. A former vice chair at Fannie Mae and the deputy attorney general under Janet Reno, Gorelick spoke to Fast Company about imagination, leadership, and the persistence of outdated mind-sets.

Fast Company: Which lessons from the commission’s report are most applicable to the business world?


Jamie Gorelick: I would start with the role of the leader in tearing down obstacles to the line people doing their job. You see this repeatedly in the 9/11 report: Law enforcement agents or intelligence analysts had a perception, and they also had a passion about their job. There were cultural, bureaucratic, and legal turfs — although frequently, the legal obstacles were more perceived than real — and it should have been the role of managers to tear them down. In fact, they more frequently enhanced them. Number two would be what we call “the failure of imagination.” [That is] reflected most poignantly in the answers that the pilots of the scramble planes [on 9/11] gave us. When we asked them what they thought they were looking for, they said, “We thought the Russians had snuck one by us.” That reflected a Cold War mind-set when the Cold War had been over for 10 years.

FC: So many companies talk about how headquarters is there to support the field. Yet overdecentralization was a clear problem in the FBI and intelligence community. Have we gone too far?

JG: I think supporting the field means looking systemically to see what the barriers are to achieving goals. Do they have the right strategy, and what are their obstacles to achieving their strategies? At the same time, you have to have coordinating mechanisms, whether it’s devices for getting people to talk to one another or, where there are critical goals that need to be achieved, tracking that progress across stovepipes.

FC: The report shows how slow the FBI culture was to change, in part because of lack of funding.

JG: The funding was just one indication of a much larger problem, which was that the hiring, training, awards, and promotions all emphasized prowess in the law-enforcement arena and none emphasized success in the intelligence arena. So no matter how many resources [were given to] the FBI for national-security functions, by the time they got distributed in the field, they would be balkanized to serve whatever the local law enforcement needed.

FC: The whole idea of institutionalizing imagination sounds oxy-moronic. Do you think it’s possible?


JG: When you go back and look, you see lots of intelligence about the interest in Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups using planes as missiles. You see intelligence on the ground about young Arab males flooding the flight schools and having odd training requests. So the imagination was there, [but] the institution did not utilize it.