by Steve Adubato, PhD

There is a lot of finger pointing going on in connection with the response to Hurricane Katrina. Newspaper headlines and television sound bytes consistently refer to the controversy around who was and is in charge of this massive recovery effort. Many continue to ask why there wasn’t more effective and decisive LEADERSHIP before, during and most of all after the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast.

This horrific natural and human disaster raises a host of questions about the nature of leadership in a time of crisis.

Q—What are the key elements of great leadership in a time of crisis?

A—The key is to keep your calm. Obviously, this is easier said than done. Picture how then Mayor Rudy Giuliani handled the aftermath of 9/11. No matter what emotions, including fear, he may have been experiencing his demeanor was always under control. If people see a leader lose it, others lose confidence. At the same time, a great leader must show genuine compassion and concern over the severity of a situation. Giuliani may have been calm, but he also made it clear how much he cared about those who had lost loved ones. The other thing a leader must do is be visible from the start. The longer you wait, the harder it is to establish that you are in fact the kind of leader who can handle a crisis.

Q—What were some of the reasons there was so much confusion and contradictory communication in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

A—The biggest problem was that there was no one leader taking charge. You had multiple officials at many levels of government who were speaking out. The problem was that they weren’t speaking in one voice with a clear, compelling message. Multiple voices from various sources is a prescription for confusion and even worse chaos. Again, post 9/11 Rudy Giuliani was the unquestioned leader. While others may have spoken at public events and press briefings, it was Giuliani who remained in control.

Q—When it comes to leadership, where is the place for blaming and finger pointing?

A—There is no place. That doesn’t mean that things didn’t go wrong and that blame won’t ultimately be assigned, but the mark of a true leader in a time of crisis is that he is focused solely on finding solutions to difficult, if not seemingly impossible, problems. He doesn’t waste a minute scapegoating or making excuses while trying to get the attention off of his actions, even if others have made mistakes. The problem post Hurricane Katrina is that those who are pointing fingers and blaming took virtually no responsibility for their own action or inaction. It’s all about what someone else didn’t do. That’s less about leadership and more about covering your behind.

Q—But beyond logistics and coordination, doesn’t great leadership require savvy public communication and public relations in a time of crisis?

A—Absolutely. Simply put, image matters even when it comes to leadership in the midst of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina. The initial image of our president flying over in a helicopter to view the devastation wrought by the hurricane was not a good one. To some, it communicated the message that as a leader he may not have been in touch or truly engaged and involved in the situation on a human level. Leaders must get close not only to the problem, but to the people affected by it. Who could forget that incredibly powerful image of President Bush standing at Ground Zero with his arm around a retired firefighter holding a bullhorn in his other hand and communicating directly and emotionally to rescue workers and the nation? This was a leader totally involved and engaged.