For a few hours on that terrible day, he was the de facto leader of the nation as the president and vice president were kept from public view by the Secret Service. His city had been brazenly attacked, and he was at ground zero coordinating with fire, police, and rescue personnel, all the while standing in the media spotlight deftly fielding questions and parceling out information as best he could. His performance, in the apparent absence of national leadership, made him stand out, and as a result, the entire nation stood shoulder to shoulder with him—Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York.
Giuliani believed that it was his duty to be visible. "I was there. I was the mayor of New York. My whole approach as mayor was to be there and be in charge. If I had not gone on TV, it would have been worse for the city." There were rumors that the mayor had been killed during the collapse of the first tower. That made his public visibility all the more vital.
As the grim reality of the loss of nearly three thousand people became apparent in the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, and as the hours dragged into days and finally into weeks, Giuliani, or Rudy more aptly, seemed to be everywhere—meeting with state and federal officials, grieving with the families of fallen firefighters, huddling with prominent city businessmen, and of course maintaining vigil at Ground Zero with fire, police, and rescue people. Later, he appeared at ball games and even on Saturday Night Live.
We can discern much about Rudy Giuliani's leadership communications by examining his farewell address, delivered in St. Paul's Chapel, a small church near the World Trade Center that served as a food and rest shelter for rescue personnel. Giuliani opens with an acknowledgement of his people and their unique capacity to inspire.
[P]eople will ask me where do I get my strength? Well, it's really simple. . . . [M]y strength and energy comes entirely from the people of New York and it comes from a place like this, St. Paul's Chapel. This is a House of God and it's one of the homes of our republic.
As an Italian American, Giuliani feels the presence of those who made sacrifices for him. He speaks lovingly of his grandfather, Rodolfo, who came to America with $20 in his pocket. "So how did he do it? . . . [He and other immigrants] were able to do it because they kept thinking about this idea in their head, this idea of America . . . land of the free and the home of the brave."
He continues with a tribute to his Uncle Rudy, a New York City policeman who served in the Pacific during World War II and was nearly killed. He concludes this mention with an acknowledgement of how his uncle also risked his life on his last day of service as a cop to save someone who was about to commit suicide by leaping from the Brooklyn Bridge. What Giuliani has done is to link himself, his family, and all of America's immigrants to the culture and values of America.
Having established his roots, Giuliani launches into a recapitulation of his record as mayor. He prefaces his record by mentioning a cover of Time magazine in 1990 that called New York "The Rotting Apple." As Giuliani says, "I felt that my job as mayor was to turn around the city. Because I believed rightly or wrongly that we had one last chance to do that, to really turn it around in the opposite direction."
Despite some initial hostility, Giuliani did turn around the fortunes of the city, and in the process reduced crime, increased jobs, and solidified the business base. He was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" for his efforts in leading the city during its darkest days post-September 11. Giuliani the fighter emerges when he speaks of victory in America's battle against terrorism:
I know we won because I saw within hours the reaction of first, the people of New York City, then the people of the United States of America. I saw within the first hours the three firefighters who lifted the American flag high, within hours of the attack when it was still life-threatening to be there.
His victory theme is echoed, this time with levity, in his mention of the crowds along the West Side Highway, a liberal stronghold. "And when they cheered for President Bush who none of them had voted for I knew for sure that we had won." As he concludes, Giuliani issues a call to action:
[W]e have an obligation to the people who did die to make sure of two things about which there can be no compromise: Their families need to be protected just as if they had been alive; and second, this place has to be sanctified . . . [so that] anybody who comes here immediately . . . feel[s] the great power and strength and emotion of what it means to be an American.
Giuliani's final words are those of the Gettysburg Address. By concluding with these remarks, Giuliani seeks to place the suffering of New York into the panorama of the American people's enduring legacy of sacrifice for ideals larger than themselves.
There was one hiccup. For a few weeks, amid intense speculation—will he or won't he?—reminiscent of another Giuliani, he wondered in public, but chiefly through aides, if he shouldn't stay on as mayor past the end of his term or, better yet, try to get permission to run for another term despite term limits. Better judgment prevailed, and he extinguished the speculation. He left office as planned on January 1. And when the new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a millionaire financier, took office, Rudy was beside him, in Times Square and at City Hall, symbolically handing over the reins. It was fitting and graceful, almost noble.
Giuliani's personal account of how he responded to the attack on the World Trade Center is a primer on leadership communications. Again and again throughout his detailed account in his book, Leadership, he writes of the importance of communications. He was insistent about getting the media involved and provided them with direct access to him. He even went so far as to conduct live on-the-spot interviews as he walked away from Ground Zero en route to a makeshift command center. The command center, too, was an example of coordinated on-site communications between fire, police, rescue, and government personnel. Face to face or phone to phone, communications are essential in responding to a crisis. As is remaining calm, something that Giuliani speaks about frequently; even if the world around you is going to hell, as it was with the World Trade Center, leaders need to project a sense of calmness.
Curiously, his account contains a near litany of the names of people he encountered on that fateful day. Mentioning these people reflects more than a politician's gift for names; it is a clue to his communications psyche. Good leaders know that actions do not occur because you want them to; they are the result of the actions of others. And if you want people to keep working for you, it is important for you to acknowledge who they are, what they do, and how well they are doing it. Giuliani is a master at this.
In Leadership, Giuliani offers some pithy insights into communicating as a leader. Not surprisingly, given his strong character, Giuliani believes, as do other leaders, that communications begins with a value system and therefore needs to be articulated as "strong beliefs." In line with this, Giuliani believes in "direct" and "unfiltered" communications; throughout his career, he has been front and center on media platforms setting forth his views in plain and simple language.
Giuliani is very particular about his choice of words. A blunt speaker, Giuliani is fond of plain talk and is not above telling his constituents what they "should" or "should not" do. Exhortations are not viewed kindly, but they form Giuliani's character as a communicator and over the years have lent him the credibility he needs in order to lead. A case in point was his deliberate choice of the word Mafia as a U.S. attorney general during his first indictment against organized crime in 1983. Until then, government officials had not wanted to use the word for fear of alienating the 20 million Americans of Italian heritage. Giuliani continued to use the term, explaining that the Mafia represents a tiny minority of Italians. "Ultimately, ‘Mafia' says only that Italians and Italian Americans are human beings. Once we acknowledge that, we take much of the mystique out of it." He also understands the "symbolic weight" of words. As mayor, his administration "changed the name on every ‘Welfare Office' to ‘Job Center.'"
In another chapter, "Reflect, then Decide," Giuliani speaks of the necessity of leaders listening to opposing viewpoints: "Make it clear [prior to a decision's being made] you'll entertain changing your mind even on cut and dried issues." By hearing dissent, the leader exposes him- or herself to an alternative view as well as to new sources of information. After gathering the information, Giuliani advocates reflection, which is really a dialogue with one's self. This process prepares the leader to make an informed decision based on facts, opinion, and personal conviction.
Whatever the future brings Giuliani, he will be forever linked with his heroic performance under fire as he at first commanded, then grieved, then cheered, and always, but always, fought to bring his City back to a sense of if not normalcy, at least, what passes for it as New Yorkers return to their lives. And like one of his heroes, Winston Churchill, Giuliani has elevated the suffering of his City to heroic status as a means of giving the people who live there a sense of hope, of mission, and of determination.
Frank Lalli, "Guts, Grace and Glory," Reader's Digest, May 2002, pp. 94-105.
All speech excerpts from "Text of Mayor Giuliani's Farewell Address," New York Times, Dec. 27, 2001.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Leadership (New York: Talk Miramax Books, 2002), pp. 3-26.
Ibid., pp. 183-195.
Ibid., pp. 195-197.
Ibid., pp. 149-154.