Leadership on 9/11: The Story of Rick Rescorla and Morgan Stanley

By Dan Rice (USMA 1988), Thursday, September 14, 2017

The first major battle in the Vietnam War was the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. The Vietnam War would last until 1975 and cost 58,220 American lives. The first major battle of the War on Terror was on September 11, 2001, and has lasted sixteen years thus far, with over 10,000 American lives lost to date on 9/11, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.  

Ironically, a man named Rick Rescorla was one of the most distinguished heroes in both of these initial battles, and he gave his life to save his comrades during the second battle on September 11, 2001.  

In the photo on the cover of “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young”, Second Lieutenant Rescorla is seen holding his M-16 gun with fixed bayonet, photographed by a young war correspondent named Joe Galloway (the co-author of “We Were Soldiers,” along with LTG Hal Moore). The bayonet for an infantryman is a last resort, and 2LT Rescorla fixed it because he was in close contact with the enemy. Thirty-five years later, Colonel (retired) Rescorla, now Director of Security for the financial services firm Morgan Stanley, was last photographed in the stairwell of the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City on his bullhorn, his last resort weapon on 9/11. Twenty-seven hundred witnesses later credited him with saving their lives by giving them direction, keeping people calm, and leading them to safety during the chaos and terror resulting from the attack on the World Trade Center. He was last seen going back into the towers with firemen, refusing to leave until all his Morgan Stanley comrades had been rescued. He would never be seen again.  

Rick Rescorla’s life story is a case study in leadership and in the importance of placing oneself at the decisive point in battle as a leader. In basic training, every U.S. Army soldier learns the four distinct statements of the Warrior Ethos. Rescorla lived a life that epitomized this Warrior Ethos: 

  • I will always place the mission first.
  • I will never accept defeat.
  • I will never quit.
  • I will never leave a fallen comrade

In 2002, a documentary honoring Rick Rescorla’s incredible life included the pivotal milestones that led to giving his life for his comrades on 9/11, serving in combat in the British Army in Rhodesia, emigrating to the U.S., enlisting in the U.S. Army, attending the Army’s Officer Candidate School, leading troops in combat in Vietnam (for which he earned a Silver Star), and his actions at Morgan Stanley in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Rick was obsessed with training to get his Morgan Stanley team out in the event of another attack – I will always place the mission first. Even though many were dying around him, both on the battlefield in Vietnam and in the towers in 2001, Rick would never accept defeat. Witnesses from both said he was always calm, confident and clear headed – I will never quit. Despite being outnumbered in Vietnam, and on 9/11, when everyone else was running out of the building, he turned and ran back up the stairs, after already saving 2,700 employees from Morgan Stanley – I will never leave a fallen comrade

Rick’s actions on 9/11 went above and beyond the call of duty, and would be worthy of consideration if our nation’s highest award for valor could still be awarded to civilians or retirees in actions against terrorists. Rick knew the enemy would target the World Trade Center again, after the 1993 bombing. He knew from the moment that the subsequent attack began that he needed to get his people out. He went against the authority of the World Trade Center announcements that announced everyone to stay put in their offices. He personally ordered the evacuation of his 2,700 employees and, in doing so, saved their lives. He continuously put himself at risk to save others and it cost him his life against an enemy that he predicted would attack. As we now see the events of 9/11 with the benefit of 16 years in reflection and the magnitude of its impact, we understand how quickly Rick acted to save his people. His actions are certainly worthy of consideration for the Presidential Medal of Freedom and he should be nominated by the U.S. Army.   

But Rick Rescorla didn’t save those Morgan Stanley employees entirely on his own. Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail”. Rick’s vision, leadership, preparation, his rehearsals, and his training, could not have been approved by himself alone at his level as a Director of Security for Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center. Multiple practice evacuations and training drills from the top floors of the towers probably cost the firm millions of dollars over the years in lost productivity and opportunity cost; somewhere an accountant must have been calculating the cost of every evacuation drill. However, Rick had the support of senior leadership at the highest levels of Morgan Stanley that those rehearsals and training were in the best interests of the safety of their employees and worth the cost. That is part of the culture and the legacy of Morgan Stanley. That is something that has been under-reported in all the documentaries and stories about that fateful day. 2,700 employees were saved and sadly thirteen perished.

Rick Rescorla was a soldier. He was a soldier in 1965, and again while working for Morgan Stanley on 9/11. General Douglas MacArthur said in his famous Farewell to Congress, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Rick Rescorla did not fade away. Even in his retirement from the Army, his bravery and leadership to the families and friends of all of those he saved, Rick did not and will not fade away. As we prepare to honor the courage and sacrifices of so many on 9/11, we remember Rick Rescorla – an American Soldier and Leader always.   

Daniel Rice, MBA, MSed, MS

ExperienceDan is the Co-President of Thayer Leadership and a 1988 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He is also President of the American University Kyiv, powered by Arizona State University, the first American accredited University in Ukraine.  Dan is the Special Advisor to the Commander in Chief... Read More +

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