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Leadership Lessons from Katrina

Dan Bobinski
September 15, 2005 -- By Dan Bobinski 

On Monday morning, August 29th, Hurricane Katrina came ashore creating the largest natural disaster in US history.  The devastation is seemingly unfathomable, but I have to agree with those who say that much of the leadership involved had fair warning but ignored it. 
 
The result of pride, political pork-barrels, poor planning, plus other leadership blunders, is plain and simple, a disaster.
 
I don’t need to call to anyone’s attention the needless deaths. Nor the looting. Nor the beatings, the rapes, or the murders.  The anarchy we witnessed is enough to wrench a person’s soul. 
 
What I do want to call attention to is the lack of integral leadership, and how key leadership mistakes led to such dire circumstances. 
 
It is not my intention to place blame, but rather to create an overview from which we can learn and then improve on our workplace operations. By examining what went wrong with Katrina, it is my hope that individual businesses will not suffer comparable results (on a scaled level, of course) as a result of similar problems in their own leadership ranks.
 
The first and perhaps most fundamental problem to examine is lack of prioritizing. For the past 10-15 years, engineers have been warning that New Orleans' levees and dams could not hold against an onslaught like Katrina.
 
According to USA Today, those warnings were all but ignored by both the federal and the Louisiana state governments, which failed repeatedly to fund requested improvements.
 
It’s been reported that the Army Corps of Engineers has been requesting money routinely to improve the levee system, but Presidents Clinton and Bush along with Congress have consistently given less than half of what’s been requested.  Sadly, we’re now looking at over $100 billion in damages.  The comparative scale is tragically out of balance: The cost of “preventative maintenance” was much less than 10% of the cost of current repairs.
 
What’s the workplace parallel?  Leaders need to factor in what’s likely to happen further down the road—not what’s just around the corner.  Investing resources to ensure your stability is a wise move, even if it doesn’t bring an immediate profit.
 
The next leadership failure is poor implementing of a plan.  Don’t misunderstand: Louisiana had a plan, but their plan lacked workable solutions to identified problems. 
 
For example, few experts expected the Louisiana Superdome to withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane, so they didn’t think it was a good idea for people to go there. Writing in Florida’s Palm Beach Post, staff writers Dara Kam and Alan Gomez state “Louisiana lacked an adequate plan to evacuate New Orleans, despite years of research that predicted a disaster equal to or worse than Katrina. Even after a disaster test run last year exposed weaknesses in evacuation and recovery, officials failed to come up with solutions.”
 
Ouch.
 
In the neighboring state, Mississippi’s plan was also incomplete, but in a different way: The Palm Beach Post also reports that Mississippi was in the middle of re-writing its disaster plan at the time Katrina struck!
 
Sadly, Florida’s very experienced emergency response teams offered help to both Mississippi and Louisiana, but were rebuffed by both.
 
The lessons learned? If you’re going to have plans, write them before you want to use them, and make sure everyone knows their roles them before you have to implement them. And make sure all issues are addressed. People need time to be trained and know what is expected of them before a plan is invoked! 
 
Also, if someone offers genuine help, swallow your pride and accept it. No sin exists in admitting you can’t run everything all by yourself.  

The third failure I’d like to examine is the lack of communication amongst the various leaders. Think of it this way: If both sides of your brain want to do different things but don’t communicate with each other on how to get it all done, your body is going to suffer.
 
Such was the case in this disaster. At the same time that New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin was on TV demanding to know the location of emergency food and water, Louisiana’s state officials were denying the Red Cross access to New Orleans.
 
Even before the hurricane struck, the Red Cross had positioned dozens of tractor trailers loaded with emergency supplies ready to distribute. But state officials were worried that food and medical supplies would draw people to the Superdome and the convention center—places they did not think would be safe in such a huge storm.  They thought if they denied the relief shipments, people would go elsewhere.

They thought wrong.  People were mugged as a result. People were raped as a result. And people were killed as a result.
 
In retrospect, state leaders were trying to cover their rear ends. If the state sent people to the Superdome and the Superdome caved in, the state would be in hot water.  Refusing to allow relief efforts was a CYA decision based on a false belief that people would go elsewhere.
 
The problem? When you’re busy covering your rear end, sometimes you get hit in the gut.  Suffice it to say that poor communication caused New Orleans to get hit in the gut.  Similarly, poor communication and poorly-thought-out, fear-based decisions can zap you in the workplace, too. 
 
Finally, let’s look at the issue of blame. The week after Katrina hit saw more finger pointing than anything else in recent history.  Frankly, it was embarrassing that the world saw such behavior. What’s ironic is that so many fingers were pointed at the federal government when it’s each state that holds responsibility for establishing and implementing its own disaster plans.
 
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is not a manpower agency—it’s a coordination agency, with a main function of coordinating existing relief efforts. When such efforts are not already in existence, there’s not much available to coordinate. Ironically, those doing most of the blaming are turning out to be the one’s who held the most responsibility to begin with. 
 
The lesson? When leaders who hold responsibility blame others when things go wrong, respect can only dwindle. This is true for both government and the private sector.
 
Oh that our business leaders would prioritize well to minimize approaching problems, and that they would develop viable plans and communicate them to all concerned. And yes, when problems arise, take responsibility and avoid blaming others.



Whether or not you have a crisis team can make or break you in an emergency. 
Check out our workshop on Setting Up Crisis Teams. It may save a lot more than time.  


 

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© 2005 Dan Bobinski / Leadership Development, Inc. You may freely forward this information on condition that you send the text as an integral whole along with complete information about its author, date, and source.
 
Dan Bobinski is a certified behavioral analyst, the President and CEO of Leadership Development, Inc., and the co-author of Living Toad Free: Overcoming Resistance to Motivation. He can be reached at (208) 375-7606 [toll free: 888-92-COACH] or by Email at dan@leadershipanswers.com
     
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