Leadership Lessons from Tony Robbins and September 11

Leadership Lessons from Tony Robbins and September 11

In September 2001, I was in Waikoloa, Hawaii attending a Tony Robbins Life Mastery Event.  I was a young leader with a team of about 60, and I was facing some challenges.  I hoped to gain some insight, new tools and leadership lessons from one of the greats.

When the attacks happened on the morning of September 11, it was about 3:00 a.m. in Hawaii.  As the news came in and people started to assemble, the mood was obviously somber.  There were 1,300 people from all over the world including 100 people from New York City, most of whom either worked in the World Trade Center or knew someone who did.

People who lost someone, or feared they had lost someone, were distraught.  One young lady worked with her fiancée at Canter Fitzgerald, which occupied the top six floors, only two floors above the impact zone.  Her fiancée had called to say good bye, as his office filled with smoke and it became obvious he wasn’t going to survive.

The easiest thing for Tony to do that morning was cancel the event.  Who would blame him?

But he didn’t.

You are not made during crisis, you are revealed during crisis.  When you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice.  When a person gets squeezed you get what’s inside.  [bctt tweet=”You are not made during crisis, you are revealed during crisis. ” username=”markatrisepg”]

What came out of Tony that day was caring and courage.  He was our leader and he was not going to leave us; instead, he was going to lead us to a better place.

Once the crowd stabilized, he asked us to work in small groups and discuss three things:  When we heard the news 1) what we focused on, 2) what meaning we associated with it, and 3) what did we want to do in response.

A young Pakistani man named Assad started to cause a ruckus when he broke out of his group and said, “My first reaction, as a Muslim, is ‘Hey, this is retribution.’  Maybe now the rest of the world will understand how my people feel.”

Then a Jewish man named Bernie, said, “I was raised to hate Muslims, but we would never condone becoming suicide bombers to attack and kill innocent people.”

Assad retorted, “Hey, Muslims feel that you came into my home, kicked me out, and then you give back a little bathroom, and I’m supposed to celebrate. And when I am not celebrating, you come and kick my ass!  I hope you finally understand how we feel.”

Tensions were rising and security personnel were starting to circle Assad and Bernie.  I expected the worse, but was shocked at what happened next.

Tony, who had been watching, invited them both to come up on stage.  As Assad made his way up the stairs to the stage, Tony said, “I want to let you know how much I respect you for having the courage to speak out about how you really feel, especially in an environment where it will not be very popular.”

This was a powerful lesson:  you probably know that it is almost nearly impossible to influence when you are judging someone.  The person can typically sense the judgement and this causes them to become defensive.  This compliment was free of judgement, and was a key component to Tony gaining influence over Assad.

Tony wanted to understand Assad’s perspective, so he gave Bernie a note pad.  As Tony interviewed Assad, Bernie took notes.  Tony started with, “When you said people would finally understand how Muslims feel, can you explain that? “

Assad responded, “Our people have mothers, fathers, spouses and kids.  We want to be happy and do the things that makes us happy.  And when someone takes away that right, then as Muslims, we want to retaliate.”

Tony followed up with, “Is retaliation solving the problem?”   This powerful question challenged Assad’s core belief.

Another important lesson:  As a leader, you need to rise above the conflict.  A leader is able to focus on the bigger picture.  A leader is able to get others to buy into a vision for positive change.  Tony believes, as I do, that we can all be a force for good and make a positive difference in the world.  Ultimately, Assad bought in to that vision.  And, so did Bernie.  [bctt tweet=”As a leader, you need to rise above the conflict.” username=”markatrisepg”]

Bernie and Assad started the day with great disdain for each other, and ended the day as leaders committing to work together to be forces for good. They agreed that if they could see each other as brothers – with mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who just want love, joy and happiness – then they could become a force for good, and start to make the world a better place.

It was a powerful moment when Assad and Bernie embraced with a commitment to partnership.

After that event, Bernie and Assad went on to start an organization to promote mutual understanding between Muslims and Jews. Assad has also written a book about his experience titled My Jihad, A Muslim Man’s Journey from Hate to Love.

Assad wrapped up the week saying, “I came into the seminar that day expecting to cry and be like everyone else, however, Tony created an environment where I felt comfortable expressing my true feelings and beliefs.  Because I was not judged for my feelings, I gained new perspective.  Instead of seeing hate and retaliation as my only option, now I see peace, love and understanding as viable options.  Instead of looking at Bernie as a guy on the other side I am now thinking of him as family.”

I had come to the event looking for leadership lessons.  I certainly got them that day.

I realized that if Tony could influence Assad (and 1,300 other participants), moving them from pain to a resourceful state with a plan of positive action, then surely I could deal with the challenge I was facing with my team of 60.

I formed three new beliefs on September 11th that helped shape who I am as a leader today:

  1. No matter how much conflict exists, there is always a way to unify the team if I am committed to being a leader.
  2. No matter how dire the situation appears, there is always a way to tap the resourcefulness of those I’m leading.
  3. I can only win over others if I create an environment where they are safe to voice their deepest beliefs and concerns.

For more information, watch Assad’s TED Talk about his experience and see in depth how Tony dealt with the audience.

What beliefs have you adopted or lessons have you learned that come from challenges or times of conflict?  Leave a comment and let me know. 

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