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Leadership by Rudy Giuliani
Change Management Lessons of Rudy Giuliani, Post 9/11

By: Dr. A. J. Schuler

Dr. A. J. Schuler is an expert in leadership and organizational change. To find out more about his programs and services, visit or call (703) 370-6545.

The world, and not just our country, watched with grateful admiration as Mayor Rudy Giuliani of the City of New York took on his shoulders the job of rallying the city - and the country - after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Everyone recognized that Mayor Giuliani was leading a crisis situation, but fewer realized that he approached the situation as a change management challenge. By preparing the city for its new, unexpected future, he transformed crisis into a temporary trauma, a transition toward a new tomorrow.
Many leaders face crises, imposed by external circumstances, that require a rallying of people. Or sometimes, leaders with foresight become the heralds of necessary changes and instill a sense of urgency in order to bring about a better future. Either way, Mayor Giuliani’s actions post 9/11 make a useful case study for any change leader.

Change Management Lesson #1: Articulate a positive vision for what you foresee as the future.
Mayor Giuliani stated he borrowed his basic message from Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech. Churchill had spoken directly and bluntly about the threat England faced with the Nazi onslaught, but also said, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

For your organization, point out the opportunities to fix a system that is essentially broken, and create a new model and set of procedures that will function more efficiently in the service of your mission in the future. Keep reminding people of the tremendous and unprecedented opportunity that current circumstances create, even if it all seems like chaos. Creativity is born of chaos.

Change Management Lesson #2: Be visible and calm, armed with critical information.
Mayor Giuliani was omnipresent in the way that he needed to be – prioritizing his time and effort well to maximum effect for his constituencies. That he had answers - or was able to say plainly what he did not know - was very calming. When he had to say he did not know something, he would say when he would have the answers or point people toward the right resource to get the answer.

When you lead a change effort, supply your people with critical information, but also challenge them to be part of creating the answers to important questions, so they can help to create new solutions and answers for the future.

Change Management Lesson #3: Raise the bar – challenge people to act out of a higher calling of service.
This task was easier for Mayor Giuliani, in a way, because the people were ready for a higher calling because of the magnitude of what had occurred. But in any well-founded change initiative, it is still be possible (and even critically necessary) to challenge people to remember what your organization’s overall mission is, and how it serves the needs of others. As the leader, your organization needs you become a moral compass and help people stay focused on matters greater than self-interest during crisis or radical change.

Change Management Lesson #4: Set clear limits with compassion – and give people a clear choice (“iron hand in a velvet glove”).
Mayor Giuliani has always been able to scold a reporter, and when questions became inappropriate – such as questions about what grieving families might have said to Mayor Giuliani in private conversations – Mayor Giuliani set limits. He made critical decisions about traffic into and out of the city as well, in spite of any potential resistance from already suffering business interests. Though Rudy did not have to deal with strong oppositional elements, you may have to, and if you do, place future directions in stark, clear terms, when necessary.

Consider sending some version of this message: you recognize that not everyone will agree with what is unfolding, but the mission is set and has been defined. Publicly challenge, invite and hope that everyone will rise to the occasion, but also create a graceful exit path for those who may want to leave - as long as they behave constructively. If at the end of the day some choose to find a place to work outside the agency, let them know that you expect professionalism and are even willing to help them find something else if they remain helpful.

Change Management Lesson #5: Lavish public praise on those who choose to make positive contributions.
Following 9/11, did Mayor Giuliani ever miss any opportunity at any point to highlight the contributions of others? He did that constantly. Don’t underestimate the power of words of simple positive recognition, even in an organizational culture that may initially interpret such actions cynically. When you stay on message and become the moral compass for the group, praise becomes your most powerful weapon in creating and maintaining order and success. Even when you feel harried and tired, be sure to end your comments and interactions with some praise, because people will need to see positive, human models of how to respond to the circumstances. As the change leader, you have to model that and constantly highlight other models as well – because that is critical in how people will learn and adjust.

Change Management Lesson #6: Don’t cloud the message!
Whenever Rudy was asked a question that really did not relate to what he saw as the one, two or three (not more!) critical issues at stake, he respectfully reminded everyone of what the higher stakes were and what the real issues were - even as he answered or partially answered the question. The moral here is stay on message, from the beginning and right on through.

I call this the “Coca Cola” strategy. Coke does not have any complex slogan with it’s product, but just saturates the market with its image and one core message: “Coke is the real thing. . . Coke is the real thing. . . Coke is the real thing.” Repetition of the core message is critical during an unfolding change program. Sometimes people will feel like they’re playing handball and you’re the wall, because almost whatever they ask or say, you will come back in a way that reinforces your core message. Plan out your core message of not more than three simply stated priorities at the beginning of the process. If you can’t do this, you’re not ready to initiate a change. Then make sure everyone is “singing from the same hymnal” when it comes to pursuing these goals.

© Copyright (c) 2002 A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.

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