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When his world fell down

How one leader communicated clarity, caring, trust

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

A few days after Sept. 11, I saw a TV interview with Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald. The guy was distraught—crying and burying his head in his hands. Connie Chung almost lost it too.

He kept saying, “I have lost 700 of my people. Now I have 700 families to take care of. I have to take care of all these families.”

I’m sure every CEO watching him was wondering the same thing: How would I handle that?

As a rule, I think it’s unwise to get too close to your employees. You’re not really a family, after all. You’re a bunch of people trying to work together to do a job and make money. For some, the job is a way to put food on the table. For others, it’s a stop on their career path. For a few, it’s a really big deal. The job is their life. But it’s not like everyone who goes in to work feels he’s among family.

Clarity: Send a loud message

Of course, Lutnick wasn’t operating under normal conditions. So many of his employees died, including his brother, that his foundation was shaken. His insistence on taking care of the families showed leadership in the face of mind-blowing tragedy, and now he’s accountable to the whole country to follow through on his word.

When you’re calling the shots, it’s easy to lose sight of the single most important responsibility you have: to provide a safe place for your employees to work. If you can’t do that, everything else falls apart.

Lutnick reminded me that part of a leader’s role is to serve as a surrogate parent to workers. They need a reassuring figure at the top, someone who’s watching out for them.

Caring: When emotion counts

Another thing that struck me about Lutnick was how he let himself be filmed at such a vulnerable time. He was basically naked in front of us, bawling like a baby.

A CEO’s success is built around perception. You want others to perceive you as tough and ready for anything. I always figured that letting my guard down so completely—not just by crying but by appearing overwhelmed and immobilized—would undermine my authority.

Yet as I think about my experiences as a father, I grew closest to my kids during the few times I opened up to them. Free-flowing emotion can reveal the power and purity of the relationship, especially if you’re not normally an emotional person.

Trust: You lead, I’ll follow

The most important lesson I took from Lutnick was his genuine admiration for his people. He kept repeating that he told his employees to take time off and “hug your kids,” not come in to work in the days right after the attacks. He marveled at how they took charge and returned to work right away, keeping the firm running despite huge obstacles.

I know when I want something done, I’ll say it over and over and expect my instructions to be followed, period. But had Lutnick’s employees listened to him and stayed home, what would have happened to his company?

They came to work because he gave them permission not to. He put them in charge. He reminded me that shifting into dictator mode during a crisis can make things worse. Sometimes the best response is to let your employees run the show.

Each month, “Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $100 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.

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