IN THE DAYS AFTER 9/11, New York firefighter Joe Pfeifer HKSEE 2006, MC/MPA 2008 would rush to a doctor each morning to have debris from the collapsed World Trade Center towers—ash, glass, steel, and everything else that was vaporized—plucked from the inside of his reddened eyes. He would then jump into his battalion chief’s SUV and rush back to the southern tip of Manhattan, near what the rest of the world would come to call Ground Zero but what he and his fellow firefighters called the pile. There he oversaw the long search-and-rescue operation and then the delicate recovery work where so many had lost their lives. That was followed by a major review of how the city could reorganize its first responders. The long busy weeks turned into long busy months and then into long busy years, during which Pfeifer continued to rise up the ranks to assistant fire chief of the New York Fire Department (FDNY). His eyes healed. So did the emotional scars. But it took him a long time to be able to step back and clearly see the most important lesson of that awful day: how resilient people and institutions can be in the face of devastation.

In 2001, after a quiet summer answering routine fire calls, Pfeifer was standing at the scene of a suspected gas leak on that sunny morning of September 11 when he saw a plane roar overhead and deliberately crash into the North Tower. Pfeifer was the first fire chief to reach the World Trade Center after the attack. His recently published book, Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11, tells the remarkable story of that extraordinary day, when Pfeifer led the first of his colleagues onto the scene, helped guide the unprecedented response, and barely escaped with his life when the towers collapsed, less than an hour and 42 minutes later. Those moments ravaged FDNY, the institution to which he had dedicated his life, and took the lives of 343 firefighters, including his brother, Kevin. But Pfeifer, a keen and curious scholar, knew that there were lessons to be discovered in the disaster.

Harvard Kennedy School alum Joe Pfeifer speaks in a classroom full of people with images of the twin towers under attack projected behind him

“For me, HKS wasn’t only about classwork. It also was about having the opportunity to reflect on the past and imagine a new future.”


Several years after the attacks, at the Kennedy School—where he attended the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program in 2006 and returned in 2007 as an Emergency Workers Public Service Fellow for a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration—Pfeifer could finally achieve the requisite distance to bring focus to all that he had experienced. “For me, HKS wasn’t only about classwork,” he says. “It also was about having the opportunity to reflect on the past and imagine a new future.” Being able to step back helped him crystallize his thinking about resilience. He settled on a framework of four principles: connecting with others, storytelling about experiences, envisioning the future, and enhancing the present with a new purpose.

After graduating, Pfeifer continued to develop his work at the Kennedy School, establishing himself as a senior fellow in the Program on Crisis Leadership and sharing his deep knowledge with thousands of other leaders across the globe by teaching in several HKS executive education courses, including Leadership in Crises. The lessons he shares have been learned and refined again and again, through small daily incidents and catastrophic, headline-grabbing events. Most important, they are lessons that are built into the fabric of crisis response.

Pfeifer says that “crisis leadership is the ability to sustain hope by unifying efforts to solve complex problems in the face of great tragedy.” At his graduation, Harvard’s commencement speaker, J.K. Rowling, had said, “We do not need magic to transform the world … we have the power to imagine better.” That is what Pfeifer did.

Banner image courtesy of  Levi Stolove; inline image by Joe Pfeifer