Saturday, September 03, 2005

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Hurricane Katrina & Leadership



The Monday-morning quarterbacks are busy telling us who’s failing, and why. I’m seasoned about this having raised funds for the homeless, and staged fund-raising events. I learned, as Roosevelt said, that it's a little bit different when you're in there yourself getting your hands dirty.

An emergency is an event, and everyone should have a chance to be in charge of one. Whether you're sitting in the congregation criticizing the minister, screaming at the football coach from the safety of your recliner, or enduring a graduation ceremony that's running an hour and a half late, be assured you have no idea what it's like unless you've done it. One wedding, two dinner parties, a couple of Christmases at our house and "the last family reunion I'll ever host" is about as much as most of us can stand.

Take what goes on in your office on any given day. If under normal circumstances you can’t get your pleading to the right court, or the right product to the right person, or even your staff to show up on time, and have trouble explaining why Mary's urine test went to John, how do you think you'd do if you pump up the volume, add death as a possible outcome of your ineptness, then subject it to public scrutiny?

Those of us who give events learn to count on bedlam, stay calm, and cope. It’s a given that the speaker won’t show up, or the projector won’t work, or the chef will quit, and that people will bicker and blame others because of the tension.
You’re beyond this? One of the worst fights I saw occurred between two lamas constructing a sand painting at the dedication of a healing center.

Working with the homeless was the most difficult thing I’ve done, and, despite the adage, it wasn’t the most rewarding. There were moments that were rewarding, but, like overseeing a disaster, it’s a battle that can’t be won, it can only be endured. There are no heroes. There are only people willing to show up and put their finger in the dyke, while those effected are shocked, hysterical, or violent, and sometimes desperate, and those looking on are projecting their frustration, compassion, anger and fear in unconstructive ways.

You can’t plan for it precisely because it is an emergency. As Eisenhower said, “…[W]hen you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected. Therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.”

And there’s always, as JFK said, “some poor bastard who didn’t get the memo,” which unfortunately can include those in charge.

Someone is forced to make decisions under pressure with incomplete information of limited usefulness that nevertheless pours in, impotent and chaotic, and sometimes wrong, and, like a physician, if you make a mistake, life will be lost.

But study it, you say. Prepare. Do the tests. They should’ve known the levees would break … the bridge would collapse … that Player X can’t punt … that it was cancer.

Tests lie. Ask David Hilfiker, M. D., author of “Healing the Wounds.” As a physician in a small, rural community, he got back several tests that were negative, proving the young woman was not pregnant, and therefore was carrying a dead fetus. He proceeded to perform a therapeutic abortion, only to discover to his horror as soon as he began removing the body parts, that the fetus had been alive until he began hacking.

A competent and experienced person did the right tests and with the best knowledge possible made a terrible mistake.

It’s an integral part of decision-making that experienced leaders prepare for. Did you know Eisenhower prepared the announcement he would make if the Normandy invasion failed? Here it is:

“Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Eisenhower’s speech before the invasion shows no uncertainty. If the leader shows doubt, who will follow him or her? It’s a catch 22.

Consider the failure of the Schlieffen plan, formulated in 1905, instigated and followed with relenting disregard to its success, in 1914. Whether it was because Moltke messed it up (wouldn’t anyone attempting to make an idea a reality?), or because conditions had changed (how could they not have in 9 years?), its failure illustrates the problem. “Plans are worthless,” said Eisenhower, “but planning is essential.” By this he meant a plan requires continual revisions and mid-course corrections.

And we forget about the levees. In my town we have a chronic drainage problem. When there’s a heavy rain, lives are lost and we demand a solution. Then the crisis ends and we forget. This is human nature. It’s also about allocating limited resources. When the weather behaves, we forget about the levees and think about hungry children, paying teachers, and building roads.

There’s also the fact that for those of us on the oustide, it’s not that we don’t get the answer, it’s that we don’t even get the question. Consider the distinct possiblity that the solution you think they’re ignoring has been thought of and rejected for a good reason. One solution often presented to us for the homeless was that we should get computerized; that if we could get the names of the homeless, the problem would be solved. The thing is, we knew who they were. Every town does, because the same faces show up every night, and in our case, they had to show their social security cards. We knew all too well who they were. It’s what to do with who they were that was the problem.

We also face the dilemma that our leaders are the kind of people who would take the job in the first place. They are not like you and me, either in the first place, or because of the demands of the job. It takes something special, which, depending on your viewpoint, is either admirable, or crazy, and even if it’s a little of both, it has its dark side. Those who call for Giuliani, should recall the role his police chief played, and what happened shortly after the police chief stole the glory by appearing on the cover of a national magazine.

People make mistakes, including the people who choose the people who make the mistakes.

So what do we do? Well, as Mother Theresa said, if the house is dirty, don’t form a committee and talk about it, pick up a broom and start sweeping. Most of us don’t even have a rudimentary disaster plan for our own home and family, much less input into local or national disaster preparation. We also share a tremendous ability to be blind to the levees. Why else would people smoke, live on a fault line, or take heroin the first time?

If you plan to be part of the solution, get yourself educated. Just plan to listen a lot more than you talk at first. And read about Queen Elizabeth’s feelings for Wallis Simpson whose seduction of Edward VIII forced her “Bertie” to the throne of England just in time to take on World War II, which ruined their happy home life, and, she felt, ultimately caused Albert’s untimely death.

And bone up on your EQ. We use it to train people in highly dangerous occupations (like oil rigs, and nuclear engineers) how to prevent disasters caused by human failing and to stay safe. Keen intuition can help you sense impending disaster and prevent or avoid it.

And when disaster strikes, we all need to, as they said in the WSJ, “take a collective deep breath.” We need oxygen in order to think. We can’t function when we’re in a state of panic. Just today, a stampede on the Al-Aaimmah bridge in Baghdad, caused the death of 1000 people on a pilgrimage. “Tensions had been high within the crowd,” it was reported. Tragically, someone accused someone of carrying explosives, panic ensued, and some people were suffocated, while others plunged to their death when the bridge’s iron railings gave way.

It was a new day, a new place, a new disaster. Are you prepared? If you're wondering if your box of toilet paper and candles and an evacuation plan is enough, it isn't, and you aren't alone.

So, as to others, remember that we are all doing the very best we can under the circumstances, even when we clearly are not.

©Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, . Offering coaching, Internet courses, and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional success. EQ Alive! training and certifying EQ coaches. for information on this no-residency program. Email for free ezine.


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