Living The Mission In The Midst of the Rubble

Rebuilding The World Trade Center Through Leadership And Collaboration

wtc memorial tree planting

When I was younger, about six I think, I asked my mother how she remembered things like what street to turn on to get somewhere, or when family birthdays were. The concept of long term memory was somewhat lost on me then. Something she said stuck with me, although I didn’t really understand what she meant. She tried to explain by telling me that she remembered exactly where she was when JFK was shot. Every detail was ingrained in her head—what she wore, where she was, the color of the wall, everything.

Fast forward to 2001. I was a young salesperson sitting at the airport waiting for a flight early one September morning. Every detail of that morning is clear in my mind. I wore khaki pants and a company-logo’d polo shirt and brown shoes. The sunrise was beautiful over the Rockies as I watched my plane taxi in to the gate where it would pick me up for my flight to Salt Lake City. Then a stranger’s cell phone in the row of chairs across from me went off. He looked at the phone in disbelief. I asked what was wrong. He said his wife had just sent him a message about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York. Then suddenly, a loud noise came from one of the sports bar across the concourse—people were packing in as fast as they could to watch the small screen over the bar, fixated on a smoking tower. desperately seeking answers. We listened to the news announcer, but little information was known about what had happened. Suddenly, a commercial airliner crossed the screen and slammed into the second tower; had I really just seen that happen?

My father was a commercial pilot at the time; was he at home? Panic erupted. Flights began to be cancelled as the FAA closed the airports. People ran down the concourse trying to get out of the airport as fast as they could; I was one of them. I remember every detail of that moment in time, from the words of my father on that frantic call, “Son, get out of the airport now,” to the image of that airliner crashing into the tower. This day will forever be etched in my mind, and it still brings tears to my eyes. Now, I understood what my mother meant.

September 11, 2001—the Pentagon, that Pennsylvania field, the World Trade Center—what images do these things conjure up in your mind? Obviously they all relate to the terrorist attacks on the United States that took place. Most of us watched in horror as events unfolded that day, and in the days after. I remember one particular moment vividly—watching President George Bush standing on a pile of rubble with a bullhorn and a message heard around the world about terrorism, “The people who brought these buildings down will hear us all very soon.”

The attacks of September 11th left families, businesses, and public agencies in ruin. One such agency was the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. “Our very future was in doubt in the days following the attack” says Executive Director of the Port Authority Christopher Ward. “We didn’t miss a beat with our responsibilities. We made payroll for almost 7,000 employees just days after the attack, and many facilities were back up and running within 24 hours,” Ward said. However, one thing was clear—the landscape had changed, and not just in a horrific physical nature way. The very fabric of the agency and the landscape of its future had been radically altered as well.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey was created in 1921 to administer common harbor interests of New York and New Jersey. It was the first interstate agency created under a clause of the Constitution that allows for compacts between states with congressional consent. The Port Authorities’ first charge was to construct critical interstate crossings, including the George Washington Bridge, the Bayonne Bridge, and in 1937, the first tube of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Currently the Port Authority operates under a roughly $1.7 billion dollar annual budget, with responsibility for major infrastructure and deep water ports all across the area, including five airports, as well as a part of the subway system in the area. Now add to that list the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan after the worst terrorist attack in American history. Sound daunting? In August of 2001, the World Trade Center was leased to a private investor whose insurance and net lease income from the towers was wholly inadequate to rebuild the area. No organization had the funding—not the city of New York, not the state, not New Jersey, and certainly not the Port Authority. Leave it to collaborative leaders like Ward and his team to find a way. Between 2001 and 2006, $11 billion dollars were committed and skillfully used to rebuild. The project is expected to be completed in late 2014. That’s American resolve at its best.

How was such an incredible feat accomplished? It was collaborative leadership during tough times. “The site was fraught, no PARALYZED with so many questions. What does it mean to rebuild? What did it mean for America? Did it need to be a message? What was the message—the symbolism of what was lost, or its resurrection as a statement to terrorism? That lack of mission and clear direction was one of the biggest hurdles this project has overcome,” said Ward.

It became the job of the Port Authority to manage the overwhelming complexity of the political and cultural nuances of the project, without allowing those complexities to overwhelm elected officials and dozens of other involved parties. And, to top it off, they had to physically build over 10 million square feet of class A office space, a transit hub, and a fitting memorial to the lives lost that day.

It was difficult at first, but the solution became clear says Ward. “We had to get it built first, and let the symbolism be decided later. The complexity had the project stalled time and again. We needed a clear mission to assign a drop-dead timeline too. That mission became the completion of the memorial." Ward continued, "We had to remove the cultural and political debate from the process. And, out of a sense of mission came a sense of collaboration. People struggle without a mission.”

Decisions about what was important plagued the efforts. Constantly in the back of everyone’s mind was, “Are we supposed to send a message to terrorists? Are we supposed to prove America’s strength and resilience? Are we supposed to prove New York is the greatest city on earth?” And, then how would such a decision be made?

The original slated completion date for the memorial was 2013, but that was unacceptable to some. Not having the most sacred part of the project completed by the 10th anniversary of the attacks was simply inconceivable. Thus, a mission was born and failure was not an option. Collaboration became the tool to make all things possible. The question, "How does the memorial get done?” began to drive every decision, and it worked.

Ward said, "We literally turned the project upside down; we were going to build the roof of the house first and the floor last. But we had a mission, and that mission bred collaboration, which allowed all other agendas, political or otherwise, to fall by the wayside. Before, we had competing visions and priorities with no clear focus or mission. Now we had one—completion.”

That sense of mission has kept the project on track ever since. Even something as controversial and divisive as the building of a mosque near Ground Zero, which garnered so much attention from all sides and captivated a worldwide audience earlier this year, didn’t faze Ward and his team. Ward added, "It could have derailed it. But because the Port Authority had a mission embraced by the entire organization, we stayed focused. It wasn’t our agenda or role to get involved in that debate. We have to rebuild downtown, and we’re doing it.”

Already scraping pennies from every conceivable location with the worst recession in history in full swing, Ward admits there were concerns of how to rebuild the 10 million square feet of space. He wondered how the project would stay on course. Again, that sense of mission took over and prompted the negotiation of a whole new real estate deal. “That was almost harder than establishing the mission to begin with,” says Ward. “There were strains put on every aspect of the collaborative partnerships we had developed, but we have a strong history of cradle to grave leadership here at the Port Authority and that carried us through.” That engine of collaborative leadership, even through the toughest of times, has become a hallmark of the agency. It is one that will carry this project through to completion, and will serve as the foundation of other monumental projects going forward.

No, the completion of the World Trade Center is not the end of the road for the Port Authority—whose mission is simple, and collaborative, Keep the region moving forward.

So what’s next? Ward states, “Enormous challenges remain outside of the World Trade Center Project for the Port Authority. Roads, bridges, tunnels, and airports, just to name a few. We need to build a new airport, and we need to do it while keeping the five others up and running. Oh, and we have to do it on the same site as one of the busiest commercial airports in the world, during normal operations. That’s not going to happen without collaborative leadership.”

Ward went on to say, “The lessons we’ve learned from the World Trade Center project will be keenly important as we move ahead. Working closely with the FAA, Federal Department of Transportation, private sector partners and others on the airport projects like La Guardia, will be critical to the success of those projects. Finding the mission, and using it to lead collaboratively will continue to make what we do a success.”

“In New York,” says Ward, “and really on a national scale, we have a crisis of leadership and funding for infrastructure. We’ve taken this for granted for a long time. That cycle of cynicism has to be addressed if we are going to move forward as a local community, state, or as a nation.”

According to the publisher of this magazine, my friend Gayle Dendinger, “Collaboration and collaborative leadership are the capital of the future.” I am one of the converted faithful to that idea, practicing it every day in my own business and community involvement. The really astounding thing is that it never ceases to amaze me how diverse collaboration can be in practice when “the rubber needs to be put to the road.”

The success of one of the most important public projects in American history has been a proving ground for this concept, right in downtown Manhattan. Ward and his team have overcome unfathomable odds to find a path forward, and stay the course through some of the most divisive cultural and political roadblocks ever faced. It’s up to the rest of us to use that knowledge in our own communities and find a way to keep moving forward. What’s your mission?

Robert Edson is the Vice President of Sales for MissionMode Solutions ( and a self-described "Serial Collaborator". He leads a dedicated team of experts providing innovative, cutting edge software solutions for the corporate communications, business continuity and incident management needs for Intel, Federal Express, Alaska Airlines, and GAP among others. He also serves proudly as a board member and contributor for ICOSA and for REAL Colorado Soccer. His passion for the safety and resiliency of our communities and his corporate partners is surpassed only by the love for his wife and two children here in Colorado. He can be found at or