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WWII Provides Inspiration for Katrina Victim Relief

It seems Katrina has finally caught the attention of President Bush. Now that he seems focused on the task, will he succeed? That will remain to be seen and I don’t know if I will be measuring his performance here unless there is a lesson in leadership to be learned from the effort. But, I do think there something to be learned from this week’s events. While it is hard to defend his lack of presence until the past few days, I believe President Bush is on the right track to providing the necessary leadership to get our country though this crisis.

In crisis, a leader must:

  • Understand the issues by being personally involved. Roll up your sleeves, put on your waders, whatever, let those on the ground know that you understand the gravity of the crisis. Bush finally got down and dirty and walked into the belly of the beast. As a leader, you are more likely to get support for your vision and strategic plan if those who you need to follow that plan feel that you understand the unique challenge of the crisis. As a great example of this principle, I think of Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in the few days before D-Day walking the staging areas shaking hands with the young troops that would execute the greatest military invasion in history. They believed in his vision and in his ability to execute it. They could look him in the eye.

  • Create a new vision. Shoveling mud ultimately is not what will lead your team through the obstacles of a crisis. A leader must to more. A leader sets forth what the future will look like after the dust settles. An effective leader transforms seemingly overwhelming problems into simplified solutions. To the victims of the disaster, the President offered specific solutions to not just restore the damaged areas but to rebuild to a higher standard by proposing the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone. This ideas is modeled on the U.S. effort after World War II to rebuild Europe, under the direction of Secretary of State George Marshall. Bush also noted in his speech that Katrina was not a normal hurricane and conceded that "the system, at every level of government, was not well coordinated” establishing that the status quo of the Federal government was not acceptable. That gave the rest of us some hope for future crises.

  • Inspire with accountability. With an understanding of the crisis and an action plan, a leader will inspire. What keeps the momentum of this inspiration is an understanding of and accountability to the plan. Much of the organized relief effort of FEMA and other state and local agencies failed in the immediate aftermath of the Katrina because the relief plan, if it was formulated, certainly was not communicated or understood by most people including President Bush. Volunteers that came willing to help did not know how or where to help. There was no coordination between Federal, state and local government. Contrast that to the invasion of Normandy, where very few details of the attack went as planned, but each soldier knew his duty and the overall objective when he left England. When new obstacles arose, these soldiers adapted their actions to meet the larger objective. The vision and objective was sustained.

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