This article is called Demonstrating Genuine Leadership because it doesn't deal directly with theories about leaders and their attributes. Instead it pulls an example from a real world opportunity to help move a nation in the right direction when a natural disaster struck America.
The phrase "defining moments" refers to points in time where someone's true character comes through. For example, is a person level-headed or do they panic during a crisis? When others really need someone to help, who can they count on?
This isn't about everyday events, rather those few instances in life where someone's will, and possibly their courage, is tested. It is during these defining moments where heroes emerge - seemingly from out of nowhere. It is during these defining moments where Presidents have the opportunity to stand above the rest.
There were many heroes that emerged during Hurricane Katrina. A nation saw pictures of them every day helping victims get to safety. Men and women that looked like they hadn't eaten a meal in days, dropping off the elderly, and turning around to go find others in need. When faced with a defining moment, these heroes acted with strength, courage, and compassion.
As is the case with any disaster of this magnitude, in the days surrounding Hurricane Katrina, there were many opportunities for leaders to emerge. But the perception today is that no one individual rose to meet this challenge. There were opportunities for at least four individuals to emerge as leaders. Let's take a quick look at what happened to each.
Elected to Mayor of New Orleans in May 2002, Ray Nagin was critical of the timeliness and resources sent to New Orleans in the days immediately following the hurricane. His role during this crisis was more of "advocate," pleading with others to send help as quickly as possible.
Displaced from the city itself, and lacking authority to direct others, Mayor Nagin never stood a chance to demonstrate his leadership style.
In January 2004, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco became the first woman to hold the office of Governor of Louisiana. Certainly Governor Blanco had more resources at her disposal than Mayor Nagin, but once again her role seemed more of advocate than leader.
While the Governor demonstrated her empathy for the victims of Hurricane Katrina with her tearful speeches, and announcing a "Day of Prayer," it is doubtful the history books will remember her as a leader in the days following Katrina.
As commander-in-chief of the Louisiana National Guard, she arguably had enough resources at her disposal to make an impact. Like Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco took on the role of advocate for New Orleans and, for reasons unknown, remained in that role. She ignored the opportunity to demonstrate her leadership abilities.
Michael Brown was charged with heading federal disaster response and recovery operations as well as the coordination of disaster activities such as those associated with Hurricane Katrina. He had at his disposal more than two dozen federal agencies and departments as well as the American Red Cross. Even more so than Governor Blanco, Michael Brown had a clear opportunity to take charge and step up into a leadership role.
The response seen from FEMA was eventually the subject of a federal investigation. This hurricane uncovered the lack of a robust natural disaster recovery unit here in the United States of America. From a leadership standpoint, Michael Brown missed an opportunity to shine.
In the days following 9/11, President George W. Bush was a pillar of strength and a role model of leadership during that crisis. Text books may be critical of his decisions and subsequent actions, but the fact remains that in the days following that event, his speeches calmed America, and many looked to him to lead them out of that darkness.
His entire reaction to Hurricane Katrina might best be explained by his remarks on Good Morning America when he said "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." This is an interesting remark in light of the fact that many people in position of power to bring about change have known about this danger for years.
In reality, the breach of the levees has been a probabilistic risk the City of New Orleans assumed ever since the Army Corp of Engineers built them to Category 3 Hurricane specifications. For over 40 years, the reality of a levee breach was possible, although many thought it would never happen. Perhaps this is what the President meant to say.
It is unfortunate that President Bush did not react with the same sense of urgency to Katrina as he did in the days following 9/11. It will be interesting to see how kind the history books are to President Bush. Will he be remembered for his reaction to 9/11 or will that be overshadowed by failure during Hurricane Katrina? Did he miss one last opportunity to show the American public his true character, or was this really his defining moment?
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