It has never been truer that a crisis brings out the best and worst in people. On the one hand we have seen bureaucratic bumbling, rage and lawlessness. On the other hand we have seen absolute heroism, sacrifice and the massive outpouring of help in the true spirit of service. Calamities like Katrina strip us naked and reveal our true selves.
For those of us watching the events play out on television the most frustrating and heart wrenching time was when we had to watch as the ten thousand stranded at the Civic Center pleaded for help and we all knew, from Washington to Beijing to South Africa, that those victims of this tragedy were receiving no help, day after day, and babies and old women were dying on the spot. We watched as the head of FEMA halted relief efforts because of reports of gunshots – we watched as he was told by reporters of the conditions at the Civic Center and replied that “That’s not been reported to me, so I’m not going to comment. Until I actually get a report from my teams that say, “We have bodies located here or there,” I’m just not going to speculate.” The entire world knew what was going on, but he didn’t and didn’t have the capacity, for whatever reason, to react to the reports and send in help. How is it that a dozen reports and camera crews were able to get to the Civic Center to cover the story, but FEMA and the entire apparatus of the United States Government could not drop bottled water and MREs to the victims? This must be explained.
Those of us who have managed organizations for some period of time have all made mistakes when appointing managers to tasks. We do our best and then discover that they have the right or wrong capabilities for the job. And, we make changes when our mistakes are demonstrated by performance. We should also assess how it was that we made the mistake that we made so we don’t do it in the future.
Bloggers from the left and right are calling for Michael Brown to be fired, now! Michelle Malkin, normally supportive of this Administration said “He proved himself utterly clueless about the disaster unfolding in New Orleans. He claimed that the federal relief effort was “going relatively well” and that the security situation in New Orleans was “pretty darn good.” Andrew Sullivan, again, normally supportive, along with others have voiced agreement.
This is a clear case in which someone who is probably a good man was appointed to the wrong job. Michael Brown is a lawyer. He is not only a lawyer, he served as a bar examiner on ethics and professional responsibilities. There is no mention of him leading or managing any organization in his bio. Lawyers are trained and conditioned to be cautious, to be sure that every decision, piece of paper and procedure is “right” according to law and protocol. Avoiding errors, law suits or acting outside the law is to be avoided at all cost. That’s what lawyers are paid for.
Generals are trained in almost the opposite set of competencies. The United States military does a superb job of training its officers to be action oriented, to attack the source of fire, to not retreat or freeze in fear, to improvise on the spot and make use of whatever resources are available. Generals know how to take quick action under fire, to mobilize resources, to command order and respect. Even at lower levels, tank commanders, seargents leading platoons, are taught to improvise, to make decisions on the spot to react to an instantly changing battle scene and to save their men and destroy the enemy. In combat life and death are measured in split seconds.
It is obvious that the competencies needed at the time of crisis are those of a commanding general, and not those of cautious rule abiding lawyer. Michael Brown was appointed because he was a good and supportive friend of a powerful Republican lobbyist. I am not going to rant about political appointments. Go ahead, make political appointments! But, for heavens sake and for the sake of the victims of the next tragedy, at the same time appoint leaders who have the skill set, the capabilities, to do that job!