5 Leadership Lessons From the Giffords Shooting in Tucson

Last Updated Jan 13, 2011 5:30 PM EST

Leadership Lessons from Giffords Tucson Shooting
In yesterday's speech at the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center, President Obama sought to unite a mourning nation in the wake of unspeakable tragedy:
"Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together."
I don't know why, but crisis and tragedy seems to bring out the best in us.

On a weekend that should have been about watching football, hanging with family, and stacking firewood, millions of Americans - including me - were transfixed by the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in a Tucson, Arizona shopping center on Saturday.

While it all began with what appears to be an insane gunman attempting to assassinate a political figure and everyone else in the vicinity, as events unfolded, a number of heroes emerged. We've seen this time and again in crises over the years - the events of September 11th and the Chile mine collapse come to mind - and this was no exception.

Although I was completely and emotionally wrapped up in the drama, I was struck by the actions and behavior of those heroes - and a villain or two - that, for me, provided some unusual leadership insights that can benefit all of us.

5 Leadership Lessons from the Tucson Shooting
Lesson 1: Courage and competence transcend age and, yes, generation
About 30 feet away when shots rang out, 20 year-old Daniel Hernandez ran toward the shots and, in tending Giffords' wounds, saved her life. A Giffords intern, the brave young man who, oddly enough, had taken a course in medical triage, applied pressure to her wound and held her upright so she wouldn't choke on her own blood. He stayed with her until paramedics arrived and held her hand in the ambulance. She was conscious and able to squeeze his hand back.

Lesson 2: Besides making great entrepreneurs, veterans make great leaders and crisis managers
Dr Peter RheesThe Trauma Medical Director at the University Medical Center where all the victims were transported and treated, Dr. Peter Rhee is a highly skilled and trained trauma surgeon who had previously been deployed in surgical units in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's received numerous awards, honors, and distinctions, and if you watched the medical debriefing on Sunday, it's clear that this man is one helluva crisis manager.

According to University Medical Center president and CEO Kevin Burns, "I have always held our people here in the highest regard, they've always inspired me, but I've never been so proud in my life as I was yesterday as they rose to the occasion in almost combat conditions."

Lesson 3: Attempting to politicize and benefit from tragedy is despicable, unprofessional, and just plain idiotic
Those who attempt to capitalize on tragedy come across as selfish, unfeeling, and lacking in professionalism and class. Unfortunately, there are lots of people that fit that description and more than a few in politics and the media. In Sarah Palin Criticized Over Gabrielle Giffords Presence on "Target List," when asked if "the Tea Party right was to blame" for the tragedy, Rep. Raul Grijalva said this:

"[When] you stoke these flames, and you go to public meetings and you scream at the elected officials, you threaten them--you make us expendable you make us part of the cannon fodder. For a while, you've been feeding this hatred, this division...you feed it, you encourage it....Something's going to happen. People are feeding this monster....Some of the extreme right wing has made demonization of elected officials their priority."
I wonder if Grijalva realizes that, by trying to tag a political figure or party with the horrendous actions of someone who is likely mentally ill, he's the one who's feeding, encouraging, and stoking the flames of hatred.

Lesson 4: In addition to planning and strategy, success is about calm, flawless execution
According to Dr. Rhee, the medical center was able to save the lives of every victim who was "savable" because, "the team dealt rapidly with a mass-casualty scenario." He went on to "[praise] the work of paramedics and the emergency response teams who transported Rep. Giffords quickly with minimal intervention. The fast response of the entire trauma team is the reason she was in the OR so quickly."

Lesson 5: The essence of leadership is inspiring a team to do great things
If you think that few leaders and executives have to deal with situations like this one, then you've never been in a high-stakes corporate crisis. Sure, the stakes are very different and I by no means wish to minimize the sanctity of life, but I've been involved in quite a few business crises where, to the players involved, the adrenaline was flowing and it certainly felt like life and death.

At times like that, a leader's job is to inspire his or her team to focus on doing their jobs as effectively as possible. That's why I think Hernandez has leadership potential. As he said, after the events, "You just have to be calm and collected. You do no good to anyone if you have a breakdown. . . . It was probably not the best idea to run toward the gunshots, but people needed help."

And Dr. Rhee put the criticality of team-work in perspective: "There wasn't one particular person who "put their finger in the hole,"" he said, "We operate like a finely tuned machine, here."

Be sure to check out today's follow up post, Is it Time to Stop the Vitriolic Rhetoric in Politics and Business? and weigh in on what's become a heated national debate.

And, on the same subject:

Image courtesy Flickr user ucsgpress