A Failure of Leadership

Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. I remember the day clearly. At 8:50 a.m., I was sitting with the bank’s CFO in a conference room facing the Hudson River and New York Harbor at our headquarters in lower Manhattan. We were discussing a bulk asset sale with two guests from another bank.

Suddenly, we were interrupted by an employee, who rushed into the room breathlessly announcing that a plane had just hit the north tower of the World Trade Center just a few hundred yards away, its imposing presence blocked from our view by a building. Like so many others, my immediate thoughts ran to the possibility of an errant single-engine Piper Cub. Before I could even comprehend that possibility, I looked out toward the Hudson and saw the second jet flying straight toward us, making its ominous turn toward the South Tower –- much too low, much too near, much too loud. To this day I can still recall the sound of the engines screaming louder and louder as that son-of-a-bitch piloting this suicide mission accelerated, crashing into the South Tower.

Several times that morning I tried to go to the Trade Center to see if I could find my brother, who worked in the North Tower. I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of me. It was terrifying. Lower Broadway on a normal day would be busy and filled with people. I could see no one through the fog of dust and asbestos. I was alone, all alone. Unable to see where I was going, I proceeded to Braille my way forward, grazing the walls of buildings to guide me forward. I never made it to the Trade Center.

The history of that awful day is remembered in thousands of stories. As time passed, I have often reflected on the fact that we did not need a federal commission, new laws, regulations or company policies to tell us the right thing to do. Everyone instinctively responded by reaching out to help someone. People stood shoulder to shoulder with family, friends, neighbors and strangers in the weeks and months that followed as we collectively mourned the loss of so many innocent lives. We came together to help each other. For many of us, however, the emotional scars of that day remain.

Today we are faced with a different enemy, one that we cannot see. Covid-19 knocked on our door in January without warning. No living generation has ever experienced a pandemic. Given the absence of leadership from Washington, we must Braille our way into a completely uncertain future. To date, over six million have contracted the virus, and the number of Americans who have died is fast approaching 200,000. Experts tell us that these numbers will likely double by year-end. Our failure to act at the federal level has launched an economic tsunami the likes of which not seen since the Great Depression. Tens of millions of people are jobless, with no immediate hope in sight. Businesses everywhere are shuttering. And communities of color have been disproportionately hard hit economically, as well as from the pandemic. Without question, the failure of a coordinated federal response has left people feeling that no one cares.

To make matters worse, the proliferation of unfounded conspiracies theories, often promulgated by the highest levels of government, combined with widespread and pervasive truth decay, has fueled hatred, division and disarray everywhere.

Soon the fall season will be upon us. Our days grow shorter. Before too long winter will set in, brining with it cold and darkness. The summer brought us the opportunity for sunshine and fresh air. Now many will be driven back indoors.  In addition to our physical and economic health, our mental health is taking an enormous toll. Indeed, we know from those who have bravely fought in war conditions, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is very real. It manifests in numerous different ways, including emotional numbness and isolation, loss of interest in daily activities, distrust, hyper-vigilance of other people, extreme anxiety and helplessness among other symptoms. Suicide ideation, especially among the young, has risen dramatically. People are no longer rooted in a world once familiar to them. They are disoriented, adrift. The absence of leadership leaves us feeling extremely vulnerable, stoking anger – both of which substitutes for our grief.

We have heard a familiar refrain, “We’re in this together,” but never has the need to strengthen our connections and help our brothers and sisters in need been greater. These problems cannot be settled by a few slogans. Even a vaccine is not a cure-all. The pandemic will be with us for a long, long time. In addition, our COVID-induced PTSD will take time to heal. We are, without question, experiencing a crisis of leadership and moral bankruptcy today. We must get back to basics and restore the sacred trust and respect that holds us together as a community of people. The failure to do so will cause the cancer of failed leadership to continue to fuel risks to our health, economy and national unity, which are wreaking havoc on democracy and capitalism. We need leaders who are faithful to something other than the sound of their own voice. We need leaders who are committed to raising-up everyone in the country, rather than merely their own short-term self-interests. Life comes with responsibilities. At our core, what defines us as Americans are the bonds of human connections and our commitment and responsibility to one another, especially in time of crisis.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

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