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.

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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.

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