Our nation needs more than a few good leaders
Austin American-Statesman, February 28, 2006
Hurricane Katrina exposed more than the tragic plight of Americans who had been living under precarious circumstances long before the storm hit.
This disaster also revealed an appalling lack of adaptive
leaders at all levels of government. As a new U.S. House report puts it,
"Acts of leadership were too few and far between." Such a leadership
vacuum highlights the critical need for leadership development programs
in every public organization.
Fortunately, we know where to look for answers.
Most leaders are made, not born. The uniformed services and a few other organizations know how to develop leaders. Some in corporate America, such as GE, IBM and the venture capital firm that hired former Secretary of State Colin Powell to help develop leaders, have strong leadership programs. But America can't rely only on the uniformed services and a few corporations to produce our public leaders.
In a crisis, what is the leadership challenge? During such moments, public leaders must be most concerned with this question, "How do we get the right things done in time to make a difference in people's lives?" To find the answers, we need technically competent leaders who share an ethic based on service, caring, respect, compassion, humility and duty.
Crises also bring on an almost reflexive yearning for a powerful person to take charge. After Katrina, a U.S. congressman from Louisiana called for "a single, strong leader with the power to override the normal process restrictions and get things done." We saw people in positions of public trust whose first response was to expect others to take on challenges for which they were responsible. And when that didn't happen immediately, they eagerly took on the role of victim.
Unfortunately, a Katrina-size challenge is too big for one person. Instead of a heroic few, we need leaders at all levels who can work toward a comprehensive disaster relief effort. The lone exception to this serious lack of organizational leadership has been the uniformed services. During Katrina, the U.S. Coast Guard was exemplary. Even before the waters rose, its people and equipment were ready to go. And before the winds subsided, its members were courageously saving lives — thousands of them.
The armed forces moved several thousand National Guard and active duty troops into New Orleans on short notice. Almost upon arrival, the situation began to improve. This was not an accident. Although Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore and Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen, who replaced former FEMA Director Michael Brown as the top federal relief coordinator in New Orleans, were the most visible uniformed leaders there, the uniformed services are full of good leaders.
Honore — "that John Wayne dude" — captured the public imagination in New Orleans, but it would be wrong to think that he was an exception or that the results were due to his leadership alone. The uniformed services have a deep bench of senior officers, any of whom would have performed equally well. More importantly, there are talented and innovative junior leaders throughout the ranks.
Some of this leadership talent has been honed in Iraq, Afghanistan and during natural disasters, but it's based on a systematic, institutional approach to developing leaders at all levels. Since the draft ended in 1973, the Army, in particular, has made leadership development a strategic imperative. The program's critical components include providing formal leadership training throughout a career, continually practicing leadership in positions of increasing responsibility, providing feedback to the developing leader and instilling an ethic of public service.
This nation will remain unprepared for future disasters if we do not develop creative, adaptive leaders. Educational institutions at all levels also must take a major role. Leadership development requires a broad education, including formal leadership courses, opportunities to experience leadership responsibility and a way to give feedback to the emerging leader.
The time to start is now. If we don't, when disaster strikes again, we cannot count on a "John Wayne dude" to save the day. And we can expect a response that will be just as mediocre and clumsy as what followed Katrina. Even worse, we could lose the hope and deep sense of optimism about the future that springs from good leadership — and that our nation so badly needs.
Prince is director of the Center for Ethical Leadership at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Tumlin is the assistant director of the Center for Ethical Leadership.
© Copyright 2006 The Austin American-Statesman
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
28 February 2006
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