Leadership and Vulnerability to Terrorist Attacks

A Steve Geske post from 2011:

I hate the ideas of “grief” anniversaries. I find them shallow and often misguided and I vowed to not write anything on this 10th “Anniversary” of 9-11. I personally don’t see anything magic or special about the 365th day after an event over the 364th or the 366th. It seems to me grief has its own schedule independent from our Gregorian calendar. It has seasons of its own which visit in unpredictable and inconvenient ways throughout our lives.

But with all the sentimentality, the pablum and the psychobabble that is filling our airwaves through our 24 hours news cycle this weekend, I feel compelled as a leader to say something.

Much is being analyzed in terms of our “vulnerability” to terrorist attacks. Such discussions focus on physical borders, security and intelligence. But there is one factor that is being ignored. I think it is the most important factor in determining any vulnerability to a terrorist “attack,” whether you are looking at a nation, a business or a family. This factor is the quality of the leader of the system.

Ed Friedman, early on in his book, The Failure of Nerve (p.9), states 3 conditions within leadership that are needed for terrorists to succeed. Their chances of success often determines their willingness to act. Paraphrasing these conditions, they are as follows:

1. There must be a perceived weakness in the leader. There must be a pervasive sense that “no one is in charge.”

Bring “in charge” as a leader has nothing to do with reactive, macho crap that isn’t afraid to “blink.” This has nothing to do with a leader getting up and uttering idiotic statements like “Bring it on!” Being in charge is about someone who is in control of themselves and their own reactivity. Being in charge is about someone who will not pass blame and will shoulder responsibility independent of public opinions. When a “buck passing, poll-taking, knee jerk, macho talking, reactive leaders is present, the threat level of a terrorist attack is elevated. It’s no accident that 9-11 was chosen for the date of the terrorist attack. It is no less of an accident that 2001 was chosen as well.

2. There must be a vulnerability in the leader that can easily be exploited.

Terrorist look for leaders that they can “bait” into reacting in predictable ways and then seek to use their reactions to further their goals. Do you think it was by accident the son of a father who had a “score” to settle for Dad was selected as the target? Do you think the terrorists of 9-11 (the ones behind the scenes of the attacks) were surprised at theUSresponse? I think not. An obvious vulnerabilty existed in our leadership and they knew it and knew how to use it.

3. Thirdly, Friedman observes that there must be among the leader and the followers, a pervasive and unreasonable faith in “being reasonable.”

No one would accuse the terrorists of being reasonable. And no one in our leadership publicly tried to reason with them. But that’s not what reasonableness is about here. I take faith in reasonableness to mean a confidence that one can act in a certain linear way and be assured of achieving a predictable result. Enter “The War on Terror.”

The thinking that we can use revenge, force and assassination to “win” against terrorism is, in my opinion, among the most misguided efforts to respond to 9-11. Acting as if the world is a billiard game and all we have to do as a nation is line up our shots, knock enough balls into their respective pockets and clean the table is blind faith in the “reasonableness” of using force in order to change someone’s thinking and opinions.

Lest you think I am being partisan here, I assure you, I believe these same vulnerabilities exist in most if not all political leaders these days.

I happened to be on a flight out of Dulles the morning of 9-11. The first strike happened. I was on Northwest Flight 1271 which departed the runway this morning at 8:45 am, one minute before the first strike. I remember noticing the sickened and unusually alert expressions on the faces of the flight crew after they had been called to the cabin some 15-20 minutes after our departure. I remember saying to my seatmate that morning, that I thought something was wrong. Another 20 minutes later the pilot informed us we were making an emergency landing inPittsburgh.

We all have vivid memories of that day and I suppose there is value in taking time out on an anniversary to be intentional about our grieving as an alternative to not doing it at all. But the details I want to keep in my own thoughts are not just those of 9-11. I also want to remember the details of 9-10-01 and the conditions of leadership that made us vulnerable to the rationale of a terrorist attack. It is these details with regard to leadership that need to be highlighted in our efforts to address our vulnerability, whether on a national, organizational or familial scale.

Peace and Courage,

Steve Geske

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