Grace Under Pressure

UPDATED: July 2, 2009
PUBLISHED: July 2, 2009

It's 11 a.m. on a warm day in April and Rudy Giuliani is running late. Long after trading in his Gracie Mansion address, the meticulous, Brooklyn-born, street-kid-turned-crisis-management icon is in hot demand. His tightly managed schedule is calculated to the minute with marathon television appearances that began on this day at daybreak. The topic today: renaming the site of the 110-story twin towers destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Plans called for a 1,776-foot skyscraper, One World Trade Center. Instead of a building, Giuliani tells interviewers he prefers a memorial to mark this hallowed ground.

Giuliani—grandson of Italian immigrants, former prosecutor who brought down mobsters and white-collar criminals, former mayor credited with cleaning up the Big Apple—will be forever linked to the events of 9/11. We’ll forever remember the video images of him with ash-dusted head and shoulders and surgical mask in hand as he walked from the disaster site minutes after the first tower collapsed. Other city officials following him grimace and clasp coats to their faces to protect against the thick dust, but Giuliani keeps walking, speaking into the camera urging calm.

“Today is obviously one of the most difficult days in the history of the city,” he said in a press conference just hours later. “The tragedy that we are undergoing right now is something that we’ve had nightmares about. My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of this horrible and vicious act of terrorism. And our focus now has to be to save as many lives as possible.”

Historians, leadership experts and psychologists have described Giuliani’s leadership style following the attacks as textbook. He spoke with a calm, trusted voice, reassuring the populace by detailing the steps to safety. He shared in the city’s grief and consoled survivors while championing rescuers, everyday heroes and the residents of New York City.

Even Democrat Bob Kerrey, a member of the commission appointed to investigate the attacks, credited the Republican Giuliani’s leadership style. “Trust me, the range of possibilities for leaders is quite extreme: Some panic, some get paralyzed,” Kerrey told The New York Times. “Giuliani was brave and reassuring, and you can’t subtract that from his résumé.”

Preparing for the Unimaginable Preparation, Giuliani tells SUCCESS, is essential in leading effectively through crisis. “I’m a perfectionist and a big believer in relentless preparation in all things,” he says from the 19th floor of Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, the Manhattan headquarters for the international law firm he joined in 2005. He also runs a boutique financial advisory and investment banking firm, Giuliani Partners, in the once-blighted Times Square neighborhood that he is credited with transforming into a thriving, family-friendly tourist destination.

“I gathered myself and said, ‘It’s OK. I know how to do this. Make decisions based on instincts that you know and trust.’ ”

“From managing a crisis to making a speech, most mistakes and performance anxiety stem from not being prepared. And when you react, versus respond from experience and training, you are more prone to making mistakes,” he says. “Just like an athlete executing a play, the more you can train and practice your strategy, the more effective you can be. Operating in the middle of a crisis like 9/11, all I had was my experience, training and instincts. Afterward, you can look back and learn.”

Early in his tenure as mayor, Giuliani says he saw the need for heightened security, restricting access around City Hall and staging disaster-scenario drills, ranging from anthrax attacks to truck bombs. He created the city’s Office of Emergency Management along with a $13 million emergency command center in the World Trade Center complex. That’s where he was the morning of 9/11 until the collapse of the South Tower, which trapped Giuliani and his team. “Once we got out, we saw what resembled what an atomic bomb attack would look like.”

Nothing could have truly prepared Giuliani or the city for the events that unfolded on that cloudless fall morning in 2001 when terrorists used commercial airliners to attack Manhattan’s World Trade Center. At 8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into One World Trade Center (the North Tower). United Airlines Flight 175 followed, piercing Two World Trade Center (the South Tower) at 9:03 a.m. The South Tower, although struck second, collapsed first, at 9:59 a.m. The North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m. In all, an estimated 2,752 people were killed inside and around the towers, including all 157 passengers, crew and hijackers aboard both airplanes. To this day, more than 20 people remain listed as missing.

Although casualties were much lower than initially speculated, the scale of the disaster was much greater than imagined, Giuliani says. “After all, no one had anticipated that airplanes would ever be used as missiles.”

Recalling the events confronting him that morning, he admits feeling overwhelmed and sometimes panicked. “But there was a point where I gathered myself and said, ‘It’s OK. I know how to do this. Make decisions based on instincts that you know and trust.’ Too, I prayed to God saying: ‘I’ll make the decisions, and you make them right.’ ”

‘I Was Alone’ Giuliani says he continued reminding himself of what he did know—what he could do. “I kept telling myself to remain focused on the next decision. The hardest thing was controlling my personal reaction. Namely, the death of people I knew, was close to, and would have needed and relied on to get through this,” he says.

One of those was Fire Chief Ray Downey, a respected expert on building collapses and a close friend of Giuliani’s. “My first response was to ask for him once the first building came down. That’s when I learned he was dead. I had seen him a half-hour earlier helping plan to extract people from the building before it imploded,” Giuliani says.

Next was Roman Catholic priest and New York Fire Department Chaplain Mychal F. Judge, the first official recorded victim of 9/11, who was killed two blocks from the World Trade Center complex. “When I heard he was dead, it was then I understood I was alone,” Giuliani says. “I tried to focus and remember deciding to put their deaths out of my mind. Father Judge was one of the hardest because I would have called upon him first to help explain this terrible tragedy.”

But there was little time to dwell. The bad news kept coming. News of the death of Fox News commentator and lawyer Barbara Olson, wife of then-Solicitor General Ted Olson, hit Giuliani hard. Olson was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77 en route to Los Angeles when it was flown into the Pentagon.

“Ted had been a friend for 20 years. When he told me the news, I had to pause.” The only time Giuliani cried was when he spoke with Olson, Giuliani wrote in his 2002 book, Leadership. After the call, “I knew we had to make sure we were not attacked again. We had to think about other vulnerable targets, the stock exchange, subways, bridges and tunnels, and take action.” With only a few months left in his second term as mayor, Giuliani became known as “America’s Mayor” and was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2001.

“From managing a crisis to making a speech, most mistakes and performance anxiety stem from not being prepared.”

“If this had to happen, and I sure wish it didn’t, I’m glad it happened with my seven and three-quarter years’ experience as mayor. I was not a novice. I cannot imagine living through a day any worse than that. But I am glad that I was the one to deal with it,” he says. “Everything in my life had prepared me for this.”

Public Service Born May 28, 1944, to a working-class family in Brooklyn, Giuliani grew up with a strong work ethic and a deep respect for equal opportunity. He initially considered becoming a priest, but his interest in the law prevailed. A 1968 graduate of New York University School of Law, he clerked for a federal judge and in 1970 became a federal prosecutor. Quickly ascending the Justice Department ranks, he was named to top posts under President Ford and again under President Reagan.

Following a stint in private practice, Giuliani was appointed U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1983. Aggressive and ambitious, he made headlines in successfully prosecuting organized crime figures in what was called the Mafia Commission Trial. He also went after Wall Street wheeler-dealers, including Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. In 1989, Giuliani ran for mayor and lost, ran again in 1983 and won. In 1997 he was reelected by a wide margin, carrying four out of New York City’s five boroughs.

Under his leadership, crime was reduced dramatically, and the once infamous city became one of the country’s safest. Moreover, under Giuliani’s leadership the city’s law enforcement strategies became models for other cities around the world. An example is the CompStat program, which allows police to statistically monitor criminal activity citywide and on specific street corners, holding precinct commanders accountable for criminal activity citywide and in their neighborhoods. Because this data is updated constantly, it is a proactive crime prevention tool.

Giuliani also implemented one of the country’s largest and most successful welfare-to-work programs, cutting welfare rolls in half and turning an inherited budget deficit into a multibillion- dollar surplus. Sprucing up the city—notably the crime-ridden pornography hub that was Times Square—resulted in record tourism.

Yet, Giuliani’s 9/11 experience has continued to define him. In July 2005, while in London on business, a series of suicide bomb attacks killed 52 commuters and injured 770, many in the subway just a half-block from the hotel where Giuliani was having breakfast. British government officials called upon Giuliani to help quell fears and boost morale.

Indeed, no accomplishments or experiences will ever have the impact of 9/11. “The events of that day have stayed with me,” Giuliani says. “But, New Yorkers react to big things well. No question that 9/11 is the worst thing that ever happened to us. It had big impact and continues to leave tremendous scars. But the city has become stronger. We all have.”