When disaster struck New York, Chicago and New Orleans, how did leadership respond?
Just two weeks shy of the fourth anniversary of September 11, our country experienced another epic disaster, Hurricane Katrina. Our political leadership was challenged to respond. The contrast in results will be studied for years by political historians. Here are three cases of disaster leadership. What can we learn?
New York: 9-11-01
Mayor Rudy Giuliani emerged from 9-11 as a leader of epic proportions. He has become a noted author and speaker on the subject of leadership. While the 9-11 disaster shined the national spotlight on NYC, Giuliani’s previous achievements were perhaps more impressive than anything he did in the wake of the tragedy. From my prospective, he personally polished the big apple in miraculous fashion. His achievements include the quieting of infamous, incessant horn honking by NYC cabbies. And, he cleaned up a graffiti laden subway system and maintained the newly established cleanliness. Two municipal miracles! If his health had not prevented him from running, I don’t believe Hillary Clinton would currently be a New York senator. Mayor Giuliani had accumulated up too much political capital in his state.
Chicago: January, 1979
Those of us who were in Chicago during the 1979 blizzard and the rein of Mayor Michael Balandic witnessed what slow response to a natural disaster can do to a political career. The Chicago Democratic machine’s successor to Richard J. Daily was subsequently defeated by Jane Byrne who preyed upon the incumbent’s arrogance and indifference to unplowed streets and closed airports during the crisis. The blizzard exposed the ineffectiveness of the Democratic Machine’s political patronage system. The defeat of a machine-backed Chicago mayor was previously unthinkable. Some believe that the blizzard of ’79 altered the history of Chicago politics enabling both Mayor Byrne and Harold Washington to serve in the office. I contend that Michael Balandic’s political problems stemmed as much from arrogance and integrity shortfalls as the blizzard itself.
New Orleans 2005
If there is an American city that is historically more politically corrupt than Chicago, it might be New Orleans. So whatever Mayor Ray Nagin can accomplish might also be considered miraculous. To be fair, his task of restoring normalcy to his city dwarfs the issues faced by either Giuliani or Balandic. Heavily armed, released prisoners and street gangs that turned the streets of The Big Easy into Bayou Baghdad, compounded by a natural disaster that cut lines communication, public utilities and transportation in a poverty-stricken, welfare state. Mayor Nagin has had to overcome the incompetence of a Federal disaster support team led by the disposed legal council for the International Arabian Horse Association. The ineffectiveness of political patronage is exposed by mother nature once again.
What leadership lessons can we learn from these three municipal crises?
There’s the obvious need for improved preparedness: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When challenged, ineffective systems will eventually be exposed. Any grandstander can assess blame after the fact. What else is there?
When faced with a crisis, a leader chooses either to react or respond. Those who effectively respond gain the respect of their followers.
- Mayor Giuliani was all about results: before and during the crisis. Now he’s cashing in. He’s earned it.
- The late Mayor Balandic attempted to substitute deception and denial for the real thing. The voters weren’t fooled.
- Mayor Ray Nagin’s story is still being written as his unique city is being reopened, restored and rebuilt. Judging from his tireless response, I like his chances, though this task will likely outlive his term in office.
Leadership in the Face of Crisis
Leadership, simply stated, is getting results through others. In the end, that is how the skills of these three or any of us will be evaluated.