“The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.” – Emerson
There are moments in life that undoubtedly change us. Nothing is ever the same again. Nor do we want to go back to the status quo.
We can invest time in assessing whether those moments change us for the better or worse. Ultimately, I’ve found that what truly matters is that we allow such moments to serve as a catalyst to move us forward, and better yet, these moments act as a demonstration of our values, character, and who we are at our core.
While I’ve most certainly had more than a few of these moments in my lifetime, I’ll never forget walking into work the morning of September 11th, 2001, and ending that day as a completely different leader and person. It changed absolutely everything about the way I choose to lead and live.
I arrived as a co-owner and CEO of Atrion, an information technology (IT) services company on a path of exponential growth. I considered myself a technical leader, and I was proud of being what I evaluated as an effective leader. We were coming off of a powerful, off-site leadership development event the day before.
But rather than spending my morning debriefing with our facilitator, I found myself huddled in a corner around a TV, witnessing the attack on the World Trade Center. None of us seemed to have words to speak or the ability to comprehend what was unfolding right before our very eyes.
I felt utterly uncertain of navigating the terrain before me, as either a leader or a human being. I had my feelings and grief that I was trying to experience and manage, in addition to the daunting task of supporting fifty-three employees and their families.
I felt somewhat exposed – nothing in my life or career had prepared me for this. There wasn’t a manual to consult, nor were there policies and procedures in place that I could reference. The buck stopped with me and my subsequent actions.
I was a zombie driving home that evening. I was looking for a life raft to hold onto to weather the storm. I can honestly say that I didn’t sleep at all that night. Because all I could think of was how this moment would test me and my limits. Could I rise to the occasion and be the leader called for at this moment? So, I started redefining my role as a leader during this unguarded moment.
Suddenly, my tactical and numbers-driven focus wouldn’t be enough to steer us effectively to the other side of this. Offering inspiring, cliché-like words wouldn’t work either because I had no wisdom for what we were witnessing.
Instead, I needed to be open and honest with myself AND others. I was swimming in new and uncharted waters. I needed to be a source of strength while being vulnerable and authentic. I needed to provide clarity and direction while inspiring my team to change the company’s essence. I needed to balance being the life raft that others held onto while having my own experience.
Would this be a defining moment – my defining moment? For sure! The next day, I stood in front of my employees and shared my vision of how we would prevail through this challenge. I was open, honest, vulnerable, and inspirational. Yes, there would be twists and turns to work our way through, but we would get through this moment.
In this new and uncharted territory, I discovered the connections between decisive, defining, and unguarded moments which I called Legacy Moments. In my willingness to access my inward, unguarded space, I was able to be both present to make critical decisions while also defining the type of leader I would become.
As this leadership transformation occurred, three types of Legacy Moments quickly emerged from the chaos of the circumstances – decisive, defining, and unguarded.
- Decisive moments – Leaders have these moments all the time; decisions must be made daily, hourly, and sometimes minute by minute. They are the proverbial “fork in the road”, where everything that comes after a decision is altered due to our choice.
- Defining moments – Our decisions drive our actions; our actions create results, ultimately defining us as leaders. Our actions reveal our character, our values and show others what we are made of and what we represent.
- Unguarded moments – It is often in solitude and silence that leaders can tap into a deeper part of themselves and allow the deepest core of who they are to arise. Unguarded moments are the times when our authentic, innermost self speaks, and we are quiet enough to listen and hear the wisdom that comes from a place that isn’t necessarily entrenched in looking at the numbers, results, or data. These moments are the gateway to standing solidly in decisive and defining moments requiring us to tap into an inner knowing.
Being open and honest with myself and the employees meant that I got to spend a LOT of time in unguarded moments to get clarity about how I would stand in the middle of the uncertainty we were experiencing. Accessing knowing and wisdom meant that I got to stay present with and vigilant to what I now refer to as “inner authority” – a profound, unshakable clarity about who I am and what I value.
Unguarded moments allowed me the discovery of my “internal compass,” which helped me make decisions as swiftly as possible to support my employees and hope that we could survive the impact of September 11th as a company and as fellow human beings.
As I navigated the weeks and months that followed, I realized that I needed to be far more intentional – and being an Intentional Leader was an entirely different level. It was far above and beyond anything I have ever experienced. I was a manager, but the situation required me to become a leader. I realized we often use these words (titles) interchangeably. I have often used these words interchangeably myself – however, they are NOT the same.
While I continued to have a manager-level focus on our goals, numbers, and metrics, September 11th was anything but status quo. It required an intense leadership focus on building relationships, uplifting people, and creating new ways of relating with our clients and each other. Intentional leadership requires flexibility to adapt and innovate while fostering growth and development. All of these were steps ahead of typical management focus on the details while keeping things stable.
I didn’t have the luxury of being solely reactive and transactional, which is often the manager’s seat. This new space meant that I got to be responsive, transformational, positive, inclusive, and in ALL directions – with myself, our employees, and our clients.
What I found was that leadership and management go hand-in-hand. I was all manager and operated with little leadership before September 11th. My decisive moment was deciding to flip that equation around and show up as a leader first and foremost. And I knew we wouldn’t survive without both.
Throughout the experience of leading Atrion through the many ripple effects of September 11th, I came to realize that a single, legacy moment of awareness can shape and define our personal and leadership journeys.
I was aware enough, despite the chaos of the circumstances, that I would get to invest in solitude and quiet to tap into a deeper part of myself as a leader. I needed to transcend managing the ship we were all on together. Instead of primarily focusing on the leaks and reacting to what threats may be present or lurking ahead, I needed to lead and proactively chart our course by tapping into the inner clarity of my authentic self.
Without this critical moment of self-awareness (and many more such moments to follow), we would’ve most likely been “dead in the water.”
Unfortunately, as an experienced leader, I see that most leaders haven’t developed their internal compass. They haven’t or are unwilling to inhabit their unguarded moments and strengthen their inner authority. The habit of self-reflection is missing, and it’s impacting their ability to stand firmly and powerfully during decisive and defining moments for themselves, their companies, and their communities.
While I certainly hope never again to see an event of the magnitude of September 11th, I know that it has forever elevated my leadership and my humaneness for the better. I have united within myself through the reflection that unguarded moments have allowed me, and I know that this is possible on a much larger scale if we choose to be intentional leaders at our core, and unite with ourselves and moments that can define us.
So, in light of our companies and communities calling us to stand up, I ask you this, will you answer the call? What will be your September 11th legacy moment that defines you?