Bob Johnson, Founding Chairman of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, strikes you as an unassuming, humble executive. He is. Earlier this month, after hearing him tell the story of how the memorial and museum were developed, it was abundantly clear to me and fellow Wisdom Community audience members that he's also an exceptional, and I really mean exceptional, servant leader. Beginning in 1995, Bob led an incredibly diverse team to defy all sorts of odds to define and develop a somber, beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking experience for those who take the opportunity to visit the site. 

The Memorial opened on the 5th anniversary of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. The Museum opened a year later. A summary of this history is found here
Bob Johnson speaking on October 4 to a group of Wisdom Community leaders in Oklahoma City.

Since then, the Memorial & Museum's Education and Research staff have applied significant efforts developing outreach programs for students, teachers and various other groups around the country.  

The timetable from the bombing to Memorial & Museum opening is impressive. No, stunning. In my view, it is a direct result of the principled, holistic approach to leadership that Bob demonstrated from the time he was first tapped to lead the original Task Force to the present day. The saying goes, "if you want to start a war, try building a memorial." Though he knew this, Bob probably did not fully appreciate it when he accepted the appointment. Bob and a small initial team began their journey with an opportunistic and valuable visit to a "lessons learned on memorial development" conference in San Jose, California. They put those lessons to great use. 

After eight months of hard work, a Mission Statement was completed and approved (read the full text to understand the scope of the document). That may seem like a long time, but the process of developing it was necessary for the team's formation and evolution. More importantly, it provided the critical vision and principles that guided Bob and the 350 person team throughout the development process. Did I say that right? 350? Yes, 350 people representing 34 different constituencies. These constituencies included victims families, survivors, rescue workers (from OKC and several other communities) and volunteers, to name a few. The level of inclusiveness was amazing. And daunting. But public participation was a major learning Bob and team received in San Jose. 

We come here to remember those who were killed, those
who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here
know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer
comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.

Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum Mission Statement

Through epic perseverance and adherence to the stated principles, the right and best decisions were made along the way on the key issues. Bob and his leadership team decided to move forward by consensus. With 350 voices, that can be a recipe for disaster. But consider this: all the key votes, whether it was approving the Mission Statement or selecting the winner of the design competition, turned out to be unanimous votes. Wow. 

There are obviously many more details to the story of the development and impact of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. These all work together to paint a picture of a high-performing team, with ups and downs and watershed moments, led by an exceptional person that met or exceeded all the challenges put in front of it. 
Empty chairs symbolizing the 168 men, women, and children that died April 19, 1995.

The lessons learned from my time in Oklahoma City are far too numerous for this blog entry.  However, focusing on the challenges of company or project team leadership that you and I face on a regular basis, I have three takeaways:

1. Take the time to clearly define your team's mission. The time will be well spent. Down the road, the vision and principles articulated will govern decisions and help keep you on track. 

2. Walk the talk when it comes to inclusiveness. Paying lip service to diversity of thought and opinion will not cut it. Identify your stakeholders and err on the side of too many rather than too few. Be open and listen and thereby foster trust. This may take time. It certainly did not happen overnight for Bob. In the end, the outcome will be superior. 

3. Tap into your pillars of support to persevere. These pillars may be a mentor or two or it could include an outside advisory committee. It is a difficult downward spiral when you as a leader believe, and act as though, you are isolated and alone. Your pillars of support provide both a sounding board and an independent source of invaluable wisdom. Bob's pillars were his wife and his faith. Bob will be the first person to tell you that he did not lead alone and that his pillars got him through some very dark days. 
Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum
Survivor tree.

These three takeaways cannot be cherry picked. It's all or nothing. For example, if you adhere to #2 without tackling #1, you'll be mired in dysfunction and discord. And even if you adhere to #1 and #2, you'll not have the stomach to survive the program or project if you ignore #3.  

Since my visit, I've been telling friends and colleagues that they should factor the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum into their team formation activities. Ideally, a visit to the site should be included. Groups can work with museum staff to tailor a set of talks from their First Person: Stories of Hope program. We heard from Bob Johnson and also Wendy Lambert. Wendy's story is exceptionally inspirational in its own right, tying to how we can all strive to make a difference, even through seemingly modest acts of kindness. If you or your team cannot travel to OKC, First Person programs can apparently be set up remotely. Contact Lynne Roller and Lynne Porter in the Education and Research department for more details. 

As I close, many thanks are due the "two Lynne's" at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum for supporting this great learning experience. Of course Bob Johnson and Wendy Lambert are due debts of gratitude for carving out time in their schedules to share their personal and inspirational stories. Lastly, I want to especially thank Kistie Simmons for making the Wisdom Community's visit to Oklahoma City a reality. 

10/21/2012 12:08:58 pm

Great article Steve. You did a great job characterizing the experience we shared and I love the learnings you articulated. Well done.

Marilyn Harding
10/21/2012 12:40:35 pm

Excellent summary, Steve. The combination of learnings provided by the guest speakers and the emotional impact of the memorial museum and grounds are not easy to describe. Thank you.

10/22/2012 02:23:52 am

Marilyn and Marty - thanks to you both for the feedback. It was a help at least to me to review the experience a few weeks downstream.

Kistie Simmons
10/22/2012 04:14:47 am

Steve, your overview and coaching on how to incorporate what we learned to advancing leadership in our personal, community, and professional lives is perfect advice. You are modeling how the experience of a few can impact many.

10/23/2012 01:55:48 am

Thank you for your wonderful comments after your experience at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Bob and his leadership team worked very hard. It was a very emotional 6 years he chaired the memorial. Needless to say I am very proud of my husband, Bob. Again, thank you. Gennie Johnson

10/29/2012 06:02:58 am

Gennie, many thanks for your comments. Please remind Bob his comments have not just touched us all, but left their mark on our hearts.

10/29/2012 06:01:18 am

Absolutely agree with all you said dear Steve. And sincere thanks again to Kistie!

Bob seemed at first to be too good to be true. But, the longer he talked, the more I felt him to be a true, inspirational, no nonsense leader of heart. What a great role model for so many. I can't even imagine all Bob has given to help the City heal and to bring about this incredible Memorial and Museum.


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