Leadership through Character in a Crucible of Conflict

The Story of Rick Rescorla

Character in a Crucible of Conflict

Extreme events call for extreme measures. The root of extreme events is often conflict. Conflict is the crucible of character.

Tacking action during conflict while staying true to one’s self and humanity is leadership through character. It is about looking out for others during extreme events.

Some may be familiar with the name Rick Rescorla. Others may not have ever heard of him, or if they did, they might have forgotten the story.  Rick Rescorla demonstrated leadership through character throughout his life in remarkable ways when confronted with conflict.


First Lieutenant Rescorla at the Ia Drang battle US Army photo

Leadership Through Character: Early Years

People that demonstrate leadership through character live by values that are part of their identity. They set a standard for their followers to emulate. Rick Rescorla emulated leadership through character early on in his life. His most common attributes in addition to his character were his presence and his intellect that he gained through his experiences.

Rescorla was born in Hayle, Cornwall, in the United Kingdom from a modest family. He joined the British Army in 1956. Rescorla served in multiple locales within the British Commonwealth where he learned his tradecraft as a soldier and intelligence officer. It was in Rhodesia where he met his close friend, U.S. Special Forces Officer Dan Hill. After Rescorla left the British Army, it was Dan Hill who later convinced him to join the U.S. Army.

Rick-Rescorla-and-Dan Hill

Rick Rescorla and Dan Hill

Leadership Through Character: Service in Vietnam

By 1965, Rescorla was in Vietnam. The U.S. Army assigned him as a platoon leader in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) with then Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore. The unit is best known for the Battle of Ia Drang, which Hal Moore would later describe in a 1992 book he co-authored “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young.” The book was later adapted to the 2002 Mel Gibson film “We Were Soldiers.” The book and movie are known for its accuracy in the portrayal of combat leadership and are both used as leadership lessons in the U.S. Army today.

Rescorla is prominently displayed on the cover of the book and portrayed in the movie because of his actions in battle. Rescorla displayed a coolness under pressure, set the example through action and displayed compassion for his soldiers that inspired them to follow him. Hal Moore would later recall that Rescorla was the best platoon leader he ever saw.  Surprisingly, one of Rescorla’s leadership attributes was humility. He never read Hal Moore’s book nor did he watch the movie.

Leadership Through Character: Corporate Security

Following Vietnam, Rescorla returned to the U.S. to continue his education. He began a career in academia but found his calling in corporate security. He began working for Dean Witter Reynolds in 1985 working at the World Trade Center in New York City. Later, the company merged with Morgan Stanley.

After the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Rescorla was concerned about a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He called on his old friend, Dan Hill, and asked him to visit the World Trade Center to assess its security. Rescorla asked Hill how a terrorist would attack the building.

Hill and Rescorla walked to the basement parking garage and found an easily accessible load-bearing column. Hill stated, “I’d drive a truck full of explosives in here, walk out, and light it off.” Rescorla took actions to prevent that occurrence but found resistance with the Port Authority of New York who owned the building. Terrorists attempted the tactic in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Luckily, the bomb lacked the necessary punch to take down the building.

Following the incident, Rescorla hired Dan Hill as a security consultant to analyze the building’s security. He also began an organized approach to building evacuation. Rescorla’s keen intellect in predicting an attack saved lives on a fateful day.


World Trade Center Attack September 11, 2001

Leadership Through Character: September 11, 2001

Rescorla heard the explosion and saw the tower burning from his office window on the 44th floor of World Trade Center Tower 2 (The South Tower). It was 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 struck World Trade Center Tower 1, (The North Tower). The Port Authority announcement directed people to stay at their desks, but Rescorla ignored the announcement. He grabbed his bullhorn, walkie-talkie, and a cell phone and began methodically evacuating Morgan Stanley employees by directing them down a stairwell. The building shuddered violently following the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 38 floors above into Tower 2 at 9:03 A.M. Rescorla kept people calm by singing songs and continued the evacuation.

Rescorla successfully evacuated most of Morgan Stanley’s 2,687 employees. He went back into the building that was on fire. His compassion for the safety of others led him to the decision to make sure everyone else was out. Rick Rescorla was last seen on the 10th floor, moving up the stairwell, shortly before the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 A.M. His body was never found.

Lessons of Leadership

I vividly remember studying the Battle of Ia Drang as a young cadet about to be commissioned as an Infantry Officer. I remember thinking about what actions I would take given the same circumstances. More importantly, I would ask myself what I needed to do to prepare myself and the soldiers I led when thrust into a similar situation. I would spend the next 28 years of my military service of always asking that question before every training evolution and combat deployment. It was vital not to stop seeking to answer it. Conflict is the crucible of character, yet we can prepare and develop ourselves and others.

The book “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young” and the film “We Were Soldiers” is a primer on leadership that can be applied in any field. One of its important lessons is that Rick Rescorla did not order, he led. He led in the jungles of Vietnam, and he led in the streets of Manhattan.

If you want to learn more about Rick Rescorla, check out these books and videos.

We Were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam 
by Harold G. Moore and‎ Joseph L. Galloway

The movie starring Mel Gibson, We Were Soldiers

Heart of a Soldier by James B. Stewart

American Veterans Center Tribute Video: Rick Rescorla

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