About the Crisis Leadership Forum

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.

To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.

To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Leadership Failures During Hurricane Katrina

As the author James Joyce once said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” And although the leadership failures during and after hurricanes Katrina and Rita pummeled the United States’ Gulf Coast resulted in widespread tragedy, it’s useful to examine what went wrong and to learn what those events can tell us about leadership. In fact, failing to glean lessons from disasters may result in future tragedies that we could have otherwise mitigated. As another author, George Santayana, once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In their recent research article titled “Making Matters Worse: An Anatomy of Leadership Failures in Managing Catastrophic Events,” scholars Naim Kapucu and Montgomery Van Wart analyzed the catastrophic events in the city of New Orleans during and after hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall in 2005. Kapucu, an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida, and Van Wart, a professor and chair of the Department of Public Administration at California State University, San Bernardino, propose that 12 specific leadership competencies are particularly important in the management of catastrophic disasters and provide evidence of how those competencies were lacking during the Katrina emergency response.

Specifically, the authors argue that leadership during catastrophes especially requires leaders to demonstrate the competencies of decisiveness, flexibility, informing, problem solving, managing change and creativity, planning and organizing personnel, motivating, managing and building teams, scanning the environment, strategic planning, networking and partnering, and decision making. Using these competencies as a conceptual framework, Kapucu and Van Wart then discuss how their analysis of government reports and national media coverage demonstrates that in many ways the emergency-management efforts related to hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is a “case study of what not to do” (p. 719, emphasis added).

Kapucu and Van Wart suggest that the leadership failures regarding hurricane Katrina in New Orleans fall into five categories:
  1. Failures in prevention and planning. Relevant leadership competencies that were lacking include environmental scanning (defined as “gathering and critically evaluating data related to external trends, opportunities, and threats on an on-going and relatively informal basis” p. 718), strategic planning, networking, and personnel planning. Leaders failed to appropriately demonstrate these capabilities both prior to the hurricane reaching land and during the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

  2. Failure to adapt and expand capacity. Relevant leadership competencies that were lacking include environmental scanning, strategic planning, team building, flexibility, and decision making. In particular, leaders failed to shift their plans as dictated by the unfolding disaster and took a more reactive than proactive approach toward requesting assistance.

  3. Failure to restore communications rapidly. Relevant leadership competencies that were lacking include strategic planning, problem solving, creativity, and providing motivation. With these competencies, the authors suggest that community and government leaders could have restored communications more rapidly.

  4. Inflexible decision making. Relevant leadership competences that were lacking, as implied by the category title, include flexibility and decision making. For example, the authors discuss how the decision to use the New Orleans Superdome as an emergency shelter was flawed because it “encouraged nonevacuation, was unprepared for the 20,000 who were housed there, and was unequipped with the supplies necessary” (p.732). Thus, this decision failed in terms of both preparation and implementation.

  5. Weak coordination and lack of goodwill. Relevant leadership competencies that were lacking include networking and partnering, team building, and decision making. Specifically, the authors mention a number of organizations that failed to adequately coordinate their emergency-response efforts. Furthermore, although some local communities responded admirably during the disaster, others did not, and in so doing stymied evacuation and appropriate disaster relief.

Therefore, Kapucu and Van Wart’s research suggests that leaders during disasters must enact specific competencies in addition to those required by leaders in stable operating conditions. Proactive contingency planning is vital, but leaders must be prepared to adjust their plans as necessary when unfolding events challenge the assumptions upon which the plans were built. Finally, the massive level of inter-organizational coordination that facilitates effective emergency response necessitates direct attention to networking and partnering before disaster strikes.

Kapucu and Van Wart’s article appeared in the journal Administration & Society. The full reference is as follows:

Kapucu, N., & Van Wart, M. (2008). Making matters worse: An anatomy of leadership failures in managing catastrophic events. Administration & Society, 40, 711-740.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Bottom-Up Response in the Mumbai Attacks

I’ve just returned from India. The country is still grappling with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that claimed nearly 200 lives. In India, where mass casualties are not unusual – in train accidents, stampedes, or floods – the shock revolves around the inability of India’s institutions to protect even its most elite populations at an iconic hotel in its central commercial center.

There were many failures that enabled the scale of the attacks. Quite telling was that the elite commando force took 10 hours to arrive at the scene of the attacks, ferried the last miles to the scene of the attacks on borrowed public buses. Clearly the Indian government was completely unprepared for this kind of attack.

Also telling was the role that ordinary people played in rescues. The heroes were hotel waitstaff and cooks who put their lives at risk to hide hundreds of guests instead of bailing out through the back door with their own lives – many staff perished (watch a segment on Charlie Rose). A tea vendor at the train station that was attacked saved dozens of lives by repeatedly rushing in to get paralyzed commuters out. The one AK-47 toting terrorist who was captured alive was taken down by constables wielding bamboo sticks.

In the national soul searching that has followed the attacks there is much blame being levied against the government for the lack of intelligence, the lack of preparation, and the tardy response. Nevertheless there is appreciation too that guarding this vast country from terrorism is going to take the vigilance of all people. It is a lesson India can learn from Israel where ordinary citizens foil the majority of attacks by taking swift action. In the Mumbai attacks the 10 terrorists came ashore at a fishing village and walked past the dock official who passively watched them go despite all the signals that something was amiss.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Can you plan for uncertainty?

These are uncertain times – recession, terrorism, war, climate change.... All this uncertainty upsets the planners among us (people who like to know what’s going to happen and when). When I was reflecting on my childbirth experience and preparation for it, I compiled this advice for “planning the un-plannable”. I'd love to see your comments if any of this resonates with you.

1. Know all the possibilities and parameters.
2. Learn how others have dealt with the challenges.
3. Know yourself.
4. Know your support system.
5. Fill in gaps in your support system.
6. Prepare for stress (for example, by being healthy).
7. Think through scenarios and decisions ahead of time; postpone actual decision 'til the necessary time.
8. Find small ways to feel confident and in control.
9. Be kind to yourself.
10. Sleep.

Sarah L. Glover