Leadership in the Wake of September 11, 2001: Do We Have What It Takes?

Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut. October 2001

by Dr. John Roush, President, Centre College


I had the occasion recently to address the students of Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn. and share some ideas about leadership. Given what happened to our great nation on September 11, my remarks of 15 minutes or so were attended to with great interest and well-received.

The school's administration had set aside an hour for my address, and since I never speak that long -- not even close to tell the truth -- I decided to field some questions about leadership or whatever else might be on their young minds. They asked some good questions about the seven qualities of person I had identified in my remarks -- one's “leadership fingerprint” -- but then, not to my surprise, they wanted to talk about September 11 and what the war on terror might mean for our nation's leaders. They had some very good questions and observations. I was impressed with these high school students. They were informed, curious, patriotic.

As we neared the end of the hour, one young man asked whether I thought, as a student of leadership, President George W. Bush “had what it took” to lead our nation through this troubled time. I responded by noting that while I am neither Republican nor Democrat, I believed our President does, in fact, have what it takes to provide thoughtful, courageous, and informed leadership for the country.

At that point I paused for what must have seemed an eternity for these young men and women from New England. I then suggested the real question, the more important question, might be whether we, as citizens of this great nation will “have what it takes.” Do we have what will be required to be successful in a campaign against a threat unlike any other conflict America has faced?

As I pondered the challenge that lies before, it led to a series of more specific questions:

“Do we have the patience and determination to settle in for the long haul in a situation where a definitive clear-cut victory may prove elusive?”

“Do we have the toughness to make sacrifices in our level of comfort, convenience, and our accustomed way of doing things?”

“Do we have the strength to resist the temptation to judge people by the color of their skin, the manner of their dress, their religious choice, their nation of origin?”

“Do we have the ability to be optimistic and committed in the face of setbacks that well may involve further American casualties?”

I think and hope that the answer to these questions is yes. One thing I know for sure: our parents’ generation by their actions responded affirmatively to all these questions and more. I believe their example will inspire and guide us as we face the challenges ahead.

My trip to New England was invigorating and instructive. The chance to visit with this rising generation of students was a highlight for me. It always is.

These young people will in a few short years take their place in a world that will be profoundly influenced by our decisions and actions during this time. And, so, with a heightened sense of purpose, I will continue to think about, write about, and speak about leadership.