Lessons of September 11, 2001

michael and roselle hugging
Michael Hingson and Roselle – Remember

We are about to observe the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center, the pentagon and the thwarted attack resulting in an aircraft crash in Shanksville Pennsylvania. Today I had my first phone interview about my experiences from that day with Mike Ramsey, news director of KFMO Radio. You may hear the interview here,

I have been thinking a lot this year about that day and possibly more than usual I have been pondering what lessons we should take away from the events of September 11, 2001. I speak often about the takeaway lessons from 18 years ago, and I want to share some of my thoughts with you.

Lesson 1 – Teamwork

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

Michael Jordan

Let’s get the problem child out of the way first. If we are going to talk about teamwork, think of how 19 subhuman evil terrorists worked together as a team to stop the world for a bit. One cannot deny this fact. Even creatures like those who perpetrated the attacks can get lucky once or twice, but…

With that in mind think of all the teamwork that went into the search and rescue efforts by the amazing first responders in New York, Washington and even in Pennsylvania. So many worked together to help show us the way to recover from the horror of the attacks. Thousands of people, men and women selflessly worked together to lead our rebuilding programs both in a physical way as well as a reorientation of our shocked mental psyche.

Because so many people worked together supporting all of us we were able to move on. As a country and mostly as humans we felt a sense of unity and comradery rarely experienced. I think there was a spirit in this country somewhat like what people must have felt during World War II when everyone here was committed to do all they could to support our troops overseas and each other.

After September 11, 2001, you could see flags being displayed everywhere as symbols of the pride and commitment we felt in our nation. Teamwork abounded everywhere. The thugs who attacked us unleashed a torrent of positive spirit that joined us all.

For me personally I was inundated with interview requests. I, and to some degree, Omar Rivera, another blind guide dog user who worked on the 70th floor of Tower One were bombarded with requests to tell our stories. After discussions with my wife, Karen, I decided that if I could help people move on from the attacks and if I could utilize my visibility to help people better understand the reality of blindness not being the tragedy people make it out to be and if I could help people better understand what guide dogs actually did as part of a team connection then doing the interviews was worth the effort.

Soon after the interviews began requests for me to travel and speak began coming in. For the same reasons I allowed myself to be interviewed I began to accept speaking engagements. While today I work for a relatively new startup, Aira Tech Corp, I still accept, from time to time, speaking engagements because through them I can continue to promote teamwork and teach people about what it really means to be blind. Besides speaking also provides me the opportunity to demonstrate Aira.

                Lesson 2 – Trust

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs

For several years after September 11, the teamwork and unity we all experienced helped us promote a stronger sense of trust than I have ever experienced outside my marriage and my teaming with eight guide dogs. I believe trust has always been around us, but after September 11 more of us were open to trusting others, at least for a while. Events such as the Enron and MCI WorldCom scandals probably contributed some to undermining the trust momentum that was building after the terrorist attacks, but we still were more inclined to trust than before. Heck, for the most part we even trusted the government and its security efforts as the TSA was formed and airport security was tightened. Even today I find that most all TSA agents exude confidence and thus I am prone to trust them. They are, in their own ways, putting their lives on the line for us. How can we not be at least open to the concept of trusting them.

Being open to trust is what it is really all about. I do not advocate that we should ever automatically trust, but I do believe we always should be open to the possibility of developing trusting relationships.

My favorite example of this idea is what I go through every time I obtain a new guide dog. What most people do not understand is that I and my guide dogs form some of the most close-knit relationships around. We each have a job to do as members of the same team. I am responsible for being the navigator providing direction and encouragement to the team. The dog’s job is to make sure that we travel safely. We both must come to the point where we implicitly trust each other and the workings of the team. Make no mistake, I am the team leader. However, there are times I need to give over total control of our collective actions to my guide dog. Many say that dogs love unconditionally. I believe this. However, they do not trust unconditionally. Instead they are more open to trust than we. We could learn invaluable lessons from our dog friends.

If you want to know more about my thoughts on Trust, invite me to speak to your organizations. You will not regret the invitation.

Lesson 3 – Be Prepared

“Be Prepared… the meaning of the motto is that a scout must prepare himself by previous thinking out and practicing how to act on any accident or emergency so that he is never taken by surprise.”

Robert Baden-Powell

I have had the opportunity to discuss during many of my talks the concept of emergency preparedness. As I already stated I spent long hours learning what to do in the case of an emergency at the World Trade Center. I learned about emergency evacuation procedures. I traveled around the world trade center learning the locations of exits as well as where many offices and companies were located. My chief motivation was so I could entertain guests and take them to locations around the WTC including to restaurants when we decided to lunch during meetings. As a blind manager I felt I needed to be able to lead the way as we walked the center. While I wanted to exude confidence I also always had in mind that I needed to know how to get around without assistance rather than relying on others to “lead” or “guide” me.

The secondary effect of this attitude was that I did learn how to be independent while in the World Trade Center. Most people never did such a thing. So, in the case of an emergency they would have to rely on reading signs rather than having real knowledge of where to go and what to do.

Being an Eagle Scout I take the Boy Scout motto seriously. I always work to know how to escape buildings. I work in all that I do on making sure I am as prepared as I can be. That mindset saved my and Roselle’s life on September 11. I urge everyone to be more observant of their surroundings and always think of what you will do and how you will act in an emergency or unexpected situation.

Lesson 4 – Leadership

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

Ronald Reagan

During my experiences on September 11 I observed and participated in efforts where others and often I took the lead in making things happen. Some of these efforts were subtle while other actions were very upfront efforts to take the lead. As in any emergency anyone might be called on at any time to take the lead for the benefit of the group.

When the airplane hit our tower 18 floors above me I immediately went into emergency management mode. This was no accident. I spent many hours during the year before the terrorist attacks learning all the emergency and evacuation procedures I could from Port Authority personnel. I also spent many hours simply thinking about what I would do if an emergency ever took place in the building.

When the attacks took place my “emergency management mindset” quickly took over and I began to focus the others in my office on what we needed to do. After my colleague from our corporate office, David Frank, got over the shock of seeing fire outside and above us I got him to take the others to a stairwell and start them down to safety. David then came back and soon we went to the stairs and began our own descent. Many people told me how they followed my guide dog, Roselle and me because we acted so calm and poised. At the time I was not thinking of anything except keeping Roselle focused and calm by projecting my own calmness to her. The two of us worked well that day and, I guess, took the initiative in helping people to focus and go down the stairs.

I think, however, the greatest leader I observed on the stairs was an individual who had, I believe, no thoughts of leadership. At about the 50th floor David Frank suddenly said to me, “Mike, we’re going to die.” “We’re not going to make it out of here.” I immediately snapped at David saying “David, stop it.” “If Roselle and I can go down these stairs then so can you.”

A few seconds later David said to me that he needed to focus on something other than thinking about what was going on around us. He told me that he was going to walk down the stairs a floor below me and shout up to me whatever he saw on the stairs. I describe in my NY Times Bestseller book, Thunder Dog how David then left us and assumed a position a floor below us and began shouting what he saw. I remember the first time I heard him when he said, “Mike, I’m on the 48th floor and all is clear”.

David kept his position ahead of us all the way down the stairs. What I didn’t realize until much later was that David, by taking the lead in front of me and by shouting as he did while going down the stairs, in fact, was providing a sound beacon for thousands of people above and below him. He became a voice to everyone who could hear him, and he gave everyone something on which to focus as we all descended. Did I need David to shout up to me? No, but it did help David to do so. However, more important, David, I am certain, did more to keep panic from ensuing on the stairs than anything the rest of us could do. David was in every way a leader as we descended. He did what appeared to be a small act of kindness, but it had great results for all of us. David gained the trust, respect and admiration of everyone who heard him that day.

Unfortunately, I wish I could say that we see leadership in our government today. Most of the unity, respect and leadership we encountered after September 11 is gone. I do not make a political statement here. Instead I submit only that we have little trust in our political leaders because they have not taken a leadership position we all can admire, and they have not gained our trust. Again, this is not a political commentary but rather it is an observation of character. We each need to take the lead to demand that our political “leaders” live up to the character reputation that truly makes our country great and which we saw from many after September 11.

September 11 has become a day of reflection not only on what we have lost but also on what we can become. The above are only four of the lessons I believe we should consider and practice. They should be part of our lives always, but especially since September 11 they should be concepts we all bring into our lives.

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