On September 11, 2001, Col. Mark Tillman piloted Air Force One with a clear—but not uncomplicated—mission: keep President George W. Bush out of harm’s way. The day would be filled with judgment calls, the need for clarity during crisis and the need to act with discretion and leadership in the presence of a crisis affecting all Americans.
In May 2020, Col. Tillman shared his experience with the Chicago Chapter of the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors (SIOR) and the Association of Industrial Real Estate Brokers (AIRE). The lessons Tillman shared are more relevant today than ever before, as so much of “normal” American life has been turned upside down, and we once again face the need for unity in a time of crisis.
Our industry and our communities are seeking leadership, as we navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Col. Tillman’s historic accounts of his service offer some important lessons in leadership that can be applied both to the commercial real estate business—and to navigating the time of crisis we are all facing, regardless of industry. Here are some of those takeaways.
A respectful attitude is irreplaceable
During his presentation, Col. Tillman recalled a special moment between President Bush and an injured service member who had lost his legs in the line of duty. The President saluted and thanked the navy officer for his service, which he continued in a new manner even after his injury prevented him from what he was originally trained for. Advisors objected to the President’s deviation from the planned path through the crowd; he ignored them when he saw the officer in a wheelchair saluting him and made his way over to return the gesture of respect.
Respect for the people in our communities, regardless of their skin color, gender or level of physical ability, will be a measure of a leader’s mettle in the months and years to come. Keeping a “true north” of respectful behavior is key to persevering through tough times; stacking your team with people that have this quality first and foremost will make your team stronger. You can train someone to develop a certain skill set, but you can’t train someone to have a respectful attitude.
Put “multiple lines of defense” in place for your business
Be ready for the unexpected. Successful military leaders are always prepared for whatever could happen—and CRE leaders should take note. Just as Col. Tillman and his team had several progressive plans to tackle whatever security challenges jeopardized the president, it’s important to have plans in place to address any potential business challenges. What could derail your business success? What threats are you aware of and what can you plan for? What are the “known unknowns” to keep in mind?
Understand when to pivot
According to Col. Tillman’s accounts, the president’s team worked quickly and definitively when deciding when to take action. After the first plane hit the first tower and before more information was gathered, it was assumed to be pilot error, so no need to pivot. But once the second plane hit the second tower, it became clear something else was happening and immediate action needed to be taken.
From this, we can learn that gathering the right info, asking the tough questions and determining the right time to pivot are all important assets for a business leader.
Surround yourself with people you trust
The president’s team of highly trusted advisors with a variety of types of expertise was essential to the swift response on September 11. In CRE, having go-to people who you trust and who are the best at what they do will ensure that when you need to move forward quickly, you have the right people on your team at the closing table, and throughout any transaction. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, so creating a culture of excellence and trust will prepare you and your team for future challenges.
When situations are tense, keep lines of communications open
On the day of the attacks, when a plane lost contact with the control tower, the president’s team had to assume it was a hijacked plane. If you aren’t constantly communicating, people don’t know where you stand. Tense situations are becoming a part of daily life in our world and industry; don’t leave room for relationship-damaging assumptions.
In CRE, if a deal is complicated, stay in touch and make sure everyone knows where you stand, what your next steps are going to be and that the information you’re sharing is being shared with the right people at the right time. Especially in times of social distancing and remote deal making, overcommunication is key to avoiding mistaken assumptions.
America—and the world—is going through tough times right now: the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic recession and social unrest. Looking to our past and our nation’s leaders can provide classic leadership lessons that work well when applied to any industry.
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