Amid 9/11 tragedy, an email hits home

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

Responding to a crisis tests a leader’s fortitude. Your ability to reassure employees and help them cope with fear and uncertainty can solidify your standing.

As head of the Federal Trade Commission in 2001, Orson Swindle sought to lead his employees through the national tragedy of Sept. 11. A prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, Swindle brought a unique perspective to the situation.

On Sept. 18, 2001, Swindle emailed his entire staff. Applying a central tenet from his years of captivity—you are your brother’s keeper—he looked for ways to support his traumatized team.

He began by expressing his grief. He wrote, “Marines cry, too, and I have shed a thousand tears this past week.” Given his experience as a POW in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” Swindle’s stark admission of sadness ­carried extra weight.

He then urged his employees to persevere. But rather than lecture them on the importance of resuming their job, Swindle offered ways for them to address their fear.

“I am no stranger to fear,” he wrote, perhaps referring to his seven years of captivity. “Together, we can handle fear.”

 By urging staffers to “get mad” and “become calmly enraged at those who would threaten and harm us,” he helped modulate the raw emotions that many felt. He suggested that people harness their anger in a productive manner.

“We must rationally, logically, calmly, and professionally go about our lives now,” he wrote.

Finally, Swindle placed the events in historical context. He reminded everyone that “the Greatest Generation” also fought a long conflict and “so will we.”

Swindle, now 77, provides a blueprint for guiding employees through unthinkable disaster. When you level with people, empathize with them and cite lessons from your experience that apply to the present challenge, you can bring comfort to those in need of true leadership.

— Adapted from Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton, Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland, Naval Institute Press.

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