“I think this may get emotional,” my professor said at the start of class.
Not what you’d expect to hear before a business school class, especially one like ours, which is built around bringing back alumni as guest speakers. They talk about some of the big managerial challenges they’ve faced and we dissect them using the case study method. We talk about hiring decisions, layoffs, marketing choices, finance strategies and ethical concerns.
But emotional? Almost never. Sometimes we talk about work-life balance and that’s about as emotional as it gets.
As I sat there looking at the investment banker in front of me, I tried to imagine how a discussion about deal making could get, well, emotional.
I was so wrong.
Instead of getting the case in advance, we read it together for the first time in class. At first it read like a typical case, talking about meetings and golf outings. Typical, that is, until the second paragraph, in which we learned that the investment banker standing in front of us had been in his office on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. On Sept. 11, 2001.
We looked up, stunned. He tried to speak and got choked up immediately. My eyes flooded with tears. Sniffing noises came from all corners of the room.
We spent the next hour and 20 minutes discussing what we would have done on that day. Left the tower or stayed inside? Encouraged our employees to leave or stay? How would we deal with the consequences?
It was nearly impossible to put aside our knowledge of what happened that day and how it changed all of us. We tried to imagine what we would do if the building next to us had a commercial airplane jutting out of it and no one knew it was a terrorist attack. People who were in New York that day — people who had loved ones in the World Trade Center that day — talked about the confusion and disbelief that prevailed.
More sniffing and red eyes.
During our entire discussion all I could think was, I would want to be on the ground. It was an almost primal desire to be on land. And it turned out, our speaker had felt the same way.
“One thing I learned — trust your gut. Nine out of 10 times, if I don’t trust it, it’s wrong,” he said. “If you have a good foundation and moral compass, trust what’s inside and follow what’s inside.”
That day, his gut feeling convinced him to leave the building and encourage four of his colleagues to go with him. It led him to take the stairs to the 70th floor. It led him to continue down the stairs even after a voice over the public address system said the crash had been contained and everyone should return to their offices.
His gut led him to safety while 66 of his colleagues died that day. He has no idea where that feeling came from and, for a long time, he felt guilty for not taking more people with him.
One widow asked him why he didn’t take her husband with him.
More tears. I was openly weeping now. I could only begin to imagine the emotional pain this man had been through, the questions he’d asked himself, the way his life had been altered. I thought of the hundreds of others who were also scarred on that day. I thought about how fortunate I was to be relatively unscathed.
“Nothing is ever the same,” he said. “Life is not fragile but it has a lot of twists and turns. People you love, you shuold tell them you love them everyday.”