Katrina cries out for authentic leadership

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 7, 2005

Occasionally we encounter moments so terrible we cover our eyes with our hands in revulsion, yet so compelling that we peek through our parted fingers in fascination. Hurricane Katrina has been just such a moment.

New Orleans, a city larger than Calgary – effectively demolished, its people left homeless, despairing, and dying. CNN took us into the heart of darkness, and with our eyes glued to the screen, our hearts cried out, "The horror! Oh, the horror!"

In last week's column, I spoke of how natural disasters can often bring out the best in people, "strangers helping strangers."

One reader took me to task. Cochrane coffee companion Marie Kane wrote:

"The 'best' in people? Maybe they used to. However, it is sad to watch the looting and shooting going on in New Orleans."

I have to agree with her. Further, it is increasingly clear that bureaucratic self-interest and infighting prevented urgently-needed aid from reaching many in their life-and-death struggle.

More distressing, however, was the failure of leaders to act when they had all the information at their disposal to prevent this human tragedy.

Take, for example, a National Geographic article my son Reg placed in my hands just six days after Katrina made landfall.

In vivid detail, Joel K. Bourne, Jr.'s article, "Gone with the Water," spoke of the August storm drawing a bead on New Orleans. It spoke of the many who evacuated the city, and of the many who were forced to remain – "the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm."

It spoke of the breached levees that were supposed to protect the 80 percent of New Orleans that lies below sea level. It spoke of a "liquid brown wall" washing over homes, and of people climbing onto roofs to escape it. It spoke of the thousands who "drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste," while others "perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued."

Bourne branded this "the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States."

At this point I paused and asked Reg how National Geographic got this issue out so quickly.

"Read on," he said, "then look at the date of publication."

The article continued: "When did this calamity happen? It hasn't – yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched."

The date of publication was October 2004.

Failure of leadership in a situation like this is a moral failure far graver than any looting.

Over the past weeks, I've been privileged to read the manuscript for a new book on the moral implications of leadership. Cochrane author David Irvine (with co-author Jim Reger) is about to go to press with the latest in his series on authenticity, tentatively titled Authentic Leadership and the Evolution of the Soul.

David has become an internationally-recognized speaker on authenticity, accountability, leadership and balanced living.

At the heart of authentic leadership, David stresses, is unwavering personal, relational and moral integrity. It pretty much boils down to this: if you commit yourself to a responsibility on behalf of others, then do it, and don't cop out by blaming others for your failures.

There are a lot of politicians and high-level civil servants in Washington, D.C., and Louisiana who will do well to learn from David what it means to be authentic leaders in times like this.

Returning to TV coverage of Katrina, not everything was darkness as I peered between my fingers at the screen.

I saw storm victims going sleepless for days so they could pull rowboats full of other victims to safety through treacherous waist-deep water.

I saw neighbourhoods where floodwaters had receded, debris collected and neatly piled by storm victims who were just glad to be alive and were determined to restore some sense of order to their world.

I saw spontaneous authentic leadership in action, and my heart cried out, "The hope! Oh, the hope!"

As another Cochrane coffee companion, Cindy Zampa, said in my July 27 column, "Even though we live in an unsafe world, we each have the capacity to bring love, peace and hope into it."

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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