Thursday, September 22, 2005

Leadership and the failure to act

(Warning: long post. But worth every word.)
I was in Boston with a good friend from Baton Rouge the day Hurricane Katrina blasted New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, so I followed the horrific developments with great interest. There is blame all around, but I haven’t seen much thoughtful discussion of the mistakes leading up to this mess.
But check out this post from the Wharton Business School’s Knowledge at Wharton newsletter. It names names and blames games – all from a sober, rational management-school point of view. It's chilling stuff.

Interesting excerpts:
Robert E. Mittelstaedt Jr.
, dean of the W.P. Carey School of Business: Despite all the laws about what a president can or can't do… when the chips are down, leaders step up and take action and worry about the consequences later.
Bush should have declared martial law on Tuesday [August 30, one day after Katrina swept through the city], sent troops in there and started to marshal resources… I have never seen him as a leader. He's just a politician managed by his handlers. And I'm a Republican.
… Leaders don't worry about consequences. Leaders are born, not made. He [Bush] has amazing power but inherently doesn't have much leadership ability. There is no leadership test to be elected.
Where did leadership show up? The Coast Guard. They had deployed helicopters to the area, so they were able to move resources in right behind the storm... People at the middle level in the Coast Guard knew it was their responsibility and they just did it.

[New Orleans] is a place with a long history of political corruption and a lack of concern for the broader public good... It's still far down on the list of cities that have things under control. The poverty level is horrible. Crime is terrible. The public school system is terrible... All of that contributes to an environment where there are no leaders who can effectively deal with the bulk of the problems.

Management professor Lawrence G. Hrebiniak: It seems the government has an aversion to good planning… FEMA has been swallowed up by the Department of Homeland Security whose emphasis is on terrorism… Third, there were leadership failures, like Brown's appointment by Bush as FEMA director. He's a buddy. We see a pattern of cronyism in politics, placing inexperienced and unqualified people in important positions. So the leader who appoints them is acting poorly, and then he appoints people who can't do the work. [Mistakes] feed off each other. It's a disastrous situation.

Morris A. Cohen, professor of operations and information management: I do a lot of work in support of mission-critical problems and systems prone to random and infrequent failure that lead to catastrophic results… What my work teaches me is the need for 'event management.' ...When events occur you find yourself in real-time management. You have to bring resources to play at the right time and manage the process of repair or replacement.

One's ability to do that is almost completely determined by the decisions and systems in place prior to the event… You can only do them by investing in advance. …It looks like a lot of this was a failure to execute rather than a failure to plan.

Hrebiniak: I've been studying some government agencies from a management perspective… Structurally, these agencies are a mess. If you tell someone to do something, size and bureaucracy inhibit functionality. We are not efficient and not effective.

I am becoming afraid of what might happen in the future, especially if we have an unannounced terrorist attack. The government is very complex... I see a need for change. I hope we start appointing qualified people to important positions. But I'm afraid there will be a flurry of activity [in the wake of Katrina] where we will help rebuild the city, but then go back to the normal way of doing things.

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