RC#20 To Lead (Part 3)

By Dag von Lubitz and Ed Beakley

RC#13 (Part 1) To Lead  introduced the discussion of leadership in the context of understanding the needs of a resilient community.  Part 2 -as a book review of America’s Army; A Model for Interagency Effectiveness by Generals Zeb Bradford and Frederic Brown – provided an introduction to the Team of Leaders (TOL) concept.  This was followed by a four part discussion of TOL as a potential “disaster operations force multiplier.”  This post of “To Lead” begins a multi-article series exploring further, leadership requirements for response to worst case disasters, sometimes considered low probability high impact events.  While it is not uncommon in today’s media to see discussion of “worst cases” in light of political scare tactics, indeed doom, failure and catastrophe are part of ordinary life – they are normal.  And yet worst cases carry an interesting, somewhat at odds definition in relation to “normal.”

“These three attributes – inconceivability, uncontrollability, and social identification – seem to be common to unfamiliar events that people label worst cases…(but) what really makes something worst is not the event itself but what people think about the event.” Lee Clarke, Worst Cases; Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination

This series of articles suggests that leadership requirements for response to such events have both overlapping AND distinctly different aspects and considerations necessary from business, political and combat operations.  This first offering provides a short “baseline” of leadership theories and begins discussion of distinct areas of interest.

 Amazingly, while many of today’s crises are preceded by long “brewing” periods, and many of the natural disasters are predictable – if not in terms of date then at least in terms of certainty of their occurrence – and the news of crises and disasters spreads around the globe with unprecedented speed, our ability to control their development and spread continues to be limited, the actions to contain them feeble, and for the most part, we continue with mutual assurances that “next time, we will do better.”  The results appear to follow the comment of the French general J-R Bachelet on the preparedness for the crisis of WWII – “In 1914 we were caught totally unprepared.  In 1940, we were fully prepared – for the First World War” (Lagadec, 2005).


At times, as on September 11, 2001, we appear totally unprepared despite ominous signs of approaching cataclysm, we fail to anticipate the catastrophic potential of events outside the most commonly accepted bureaucratic and political routines, fail to realize the dangerous nature of “event outliers,” and complacently reject warning signs by dubbing them as rumors or “minor incidents of utter insignificance.”


Speculation “what-if” notwithstanding, many recent crises and disasters (the “dot-com” crash, Hurricane Katrina and Tsunami of 2004, war in Iraq, etc.) indicate that many of the failures do not originate at the responder/operator level but much higher – at the level of executive management, a level mired in strict adherence to outmoded dogmas, inability to adapt to the constant change and unpredictability of the modern world, and saturated with the demands of political gamesmanship (and political correctness) and expedience (Robert and Lajtha, 2002).  And thus, throughout the modern world, firefighters, medics, police forces, soldiers, rescue volunteers, and humanitarian aid workers fight often heroic battles to save lives, to restore stability and at least partial peace to regions ravaged by cataclysms, unnecessary wars, economic privations, and disease caused by nothing more dramatic than simple poverty, doing it in the most devastating vacuum of all: the vacuum of adequate leadership at the highest levels of corporate and governmental bureaucracies (Lagadec, 2005.)


Theories of leadership


The art of leadership, the attributes of leaders, and the manner in which they approach conflicting situation has been the subject of much academic and popular interest.  In recent years a vast number of popular, almost evangelical offerings emerged based on rousing examples of success drawn from business life.  For the most part, majority of these texts present the serious reader with nothing more than trivial analyses of leadership in comparatively placid environment of daily corporate routines where decent management acquired a shinier name of “leadership.”  Moreover, the majority of these works offer but quick fixes based on idealized scenarios, and a diluted mix of organizational psychology, with ideal leaders presented as team-building super-humans of grand vision, stalwart moral spine, decisiveness, and team-building inclination (e.g., Sim et al., 2007; Sidle, 2005; Schaffer et al., 2005).  Yet, as the reality of “post mortem” exploration of almost every major crisis and disaster shows, one of the principal (if not the principal) reasons for failure was leadership incompetence (Cooper and Block, 2006; MacKenzie, 2002; Witt and Behr 2002).  Unsurprisingly, the city of New Orleans is still riddled by inadequacies of infrastructure, raising crime levels, and grossly inefficient efforts at rebuilding.


During the past 80 years, academic studies of leadership resulted in four “classical” theories of leader ship. 1) The trait theory (e.g., Gardner, 1989; see also Stogdill, 1948) contends that some individuals are characterized by a definable set of personal qualities (traits) which predispose them to become leaders.  Leadership ability appears thus to be contingent on specific genetic traits but a closer look reveals that the list of desirable qualities published ever since publication of Gradner’s work represents not only a mix of acquired behaviors, skills, intellectual and emotional maturity, and, indeed, genetically determined traits, e.g., physical appearance, but also the grand sum total of almost every positive trait ascribable to a human being.  Interestingly, the “male-spin” appears to be associated with the “trait theory,” the preferable characteristics of a leader being perceived as distinctly “male” (Rosener, 1997) although no evidence exists supporting differences in male vs. female quality of leadership.


2) The shift of focus from leadership traits to how leaders act resulted in the emergence of behavior theories (e.g., McGregor, 1960; Blake and Mouton, 1964; Wright, 1996) and led to identification of several distinctive leadership styles.  Further research demonstrated quite clearly that the art of leadership is greatly affected by the task at hand, environment in which the act of leadership is performed, the quality (maturity) of the followers, etc.  (e.g., Fielder, 1987; Fiedler and Garcia, 1997; Hersey and Blanchard, 1977). 


Clearly, leaders not only represented several identifiable styles but the style was contingent on situational context.  The most significant deficiency of 3) contingency or situational concept of leadership is its pronounced US bias that derives from analyses based on US models of corporate environment (The undeniable existence of often pronounced differences between culturally very closely related North Americans and Europeans (e.g., Rifkin, 2004) clearly indicates potential difficulties in using contingency models as the underlying leadership theory suitable for complex international operations such as those following Indian Ocean Tsunami or, for that matter, those encountered in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.


4) Finally, it has been proposed (Burns, 1977; Bolman and Deal, 1997) that leaders serve as agents of change (transformation) who influence behavior of the followers either through transactional (trading) or transforming approach in which the leader and the followers interact in a mutually uplifting manner.  The two forms of leadership proposed by Burns (1977) are highly polarized, and Bass (1985) proposed a hybrid approach based on transformational exploitation of the transactional approach – “transformational leadership” – where the leader transforms the followers through uni-directional influence.

Van Maurik (2001) both argued that transformational leadership is particularly well suited to actions executed in environments where high levels of uncertainty and change affect not only the leaders and their staff but the entire organizations, and also identified three main lines of thought within the broad concept of transformational leadership.  Overall, “the goal of transformational leadership is to ‘transform’ people and organizations in a literal sense – to change them in mind and heart; enlarge vision, insight, and understanding; clarify purposes, make behavior congruent with beliefs, principles, or values; and bring about changes that are permanent, self-perpetuating, and momentum building” (Bass and Avolio, 1994).


Transactional leadership remains the principal model for organizations rooted in rigid vertical chains of command and inflexible bureaucracies and which, despite operating in a rapidly changing world, adhere to the inflexible past and fail to adopt transformational methods as the platform for executive leadership (Bolden et al., 2003).  While transactional leaders are proactive, anticipatory, and influence organization’s development rather than only its performance, the question of authority and charisma as the necessary attributes of successful leadership remains.  As pointed out by Heifetz (1994), authority of formal organizational rank is often confused with leadership, and represents the principal attribute legitimizing the powers of directing others.  Major executive powers (authority) when associated with inadequate leadership capability proved consistently to lead to major policy errors, major operational inefficiencies, fiscal losses and a host of other adverse consequences (e.g., Boin et al., 2006; Cooper and Block, 2006; Ricks, 2006; Lagadec, 2005).


True leadership appears then not to depend on the exercise of formal authority but the leader’s reliance on personal qualities and actions – informal authority – that inspire and make the followers concur and accept leader’s directions.  Formal authority has, however, significant advantages when wielded prudently and employed in the context of mission execution: it facilitates acquisition of resources and access to the executive levels of the organization both of which may provide critical mechanisms necessary for the operational effectiveness of the led entity (e.g., removal of Mr. Brown, the former director of FEMA, from the cabinet level contributed to the loss of his ability to perform as an efficient leader during the immediate, and most critical, period following Hurricane Katrina; see Cooper and Block, 2006).


Personal qualities – the charisma factor


Charisma is among the most intangible qualities of leadership, and its role has been emphasized by Max Weber (1922).  It comes to the fore particularly in the times of major crises (e.g., Nelson, Churchill, Gandhi or Kennedy), with the leader’s power grounded in “…exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers” (Kendall et al, 2000).  Although Charismatic leaders emerging during period of turbulence offer inspiration, and the sense of emotional safety and direction, they need not represent positive forces (e.g., Hitler or Mussolini).  More importantly, charismatic leaders have a tendency of causing emotional dependency among the followers that may paralyze their ability to act independently in situations of crisis or lethal threats to the organization (as seen, for example among many generals of Napoleon performing brilliantly while in the presence of the Emperor, and suffering defeats in his absence, e.g., McLynn, 2002).


 Altogether, personal qualities of the leader, as important as they may be, do not ultimately translate into effective execution of leadership and, in the context of increasingly globalized world and contact of societies with vastly divergent cultural foundations (perfectly exemplified by the clash of Islamic and Western values in Iraq, e.g., Rick, 2006), excessive emphasis of such qualities may lead to harm rather than operational benefits (Bolden et al., 2003).  Consequently, leadership is better exercised when based on a framework of universally accepted rules of conduct, ethics, and professionalism.


A striking divergence from the generally common standards is that of the US Senior Executive Service (SES, at http://www.opm.gov/ses/competent.html) which, under the competency of “building coalitions/communication” requires “political savvy.”  One can not escape the notion that excessively developed political savvy may have contributed to the problems of the executive leadership that have emerged with striking clarity during the recent crises and disasters.  It is thus quite likely that the official encouragement of acute awareness of political atmosphere surrounding these events might have promoted operational rigidity, adherence to agency rules and regulations, and interagency divisiveness and territory protection.  In short, “political savvy” may mean nothing else but increased fear of consequences resulting from “politically incorrect” but operationally essential decision, elevated timidity and intellectual paralysis at the time of the most intense demand for clear-cut decisions, precision of actions, and focus on the mission rather than personal survival (see also Boin et al., 2005).




At the moment, practically every major organization, whether corporate or governmental, has a well defined set of competencies that need to be mastered by their leadership.  A survey of several European US corporate and governmental/public organizations (Bolden et al., 2003) shows that the differences notwithstanding, the majority of these frameworks center on a number of common values related to personal qualities, ability to provide vision and direction to the followers, development of subordinate personnel, and achievement of positive outcomes.


The question of interest then, which this series of papers intends to explore further, relates to the specific leadership requirements for disaster response.


The nature of crisis and disaster is the subject of the next paper in the series.  But as prelude, consideration must be given to the following:

  • In disaster operations – as in combat – one neither knows nor even expects to know all sources of information, or assumes the ability to verify all sources (who may represent government or private organizations, informal groups, or individuals) generating and participating in the transfer of information.
  • Leaders may be responsible or not for the content and transfer of the information. The degree of responsibility may vary. The degree of exactitude in the process of transfer may vary. The identity and character of all participants in a given scenario may not be known.
  • When applied to either disaster prevention or consequence mitigation process, the extant information has to be transformed into leader usable knowledge.  Given the broad span of disaster problems, assimilating the breadth of knowledge, decision making and actions necessary will require an approach as presented in the previous article discussing the “Team of Leaders” concept.
  • In those cases where decisive control of results is possible, leadership can be concerned with obtaining the best results possible.  In severely stochastic situations, however, the best that can be done is to manipulate the initial response so as to achieve the highest possibility for favorable outcomes or the lowest probability for unfavorable ones.
  • But in a completely indeterminate situation, – worst cases – the unstable nature creates the significant tendency of serious operational missteps to create failure modes that allow the situation to snowball even further into complete disasters, making command of the response operations process much more sensitive to risk than that of more stable stochastic type event processes.


This suggests that management of risk is as at least important as the management of expected results. Leaders must proceed intuitively, protecting as well as possible against disaster at each point while attempting actions more designed to learn about the situation than control it. 

The implication is that leadership success in “worst cases” is highly determined by the ability to tolerate high levels of uncertainty, the willingness to make critical decisions with limited information with the knowledge that results may be unknown or negative. The ability to regain control over the situation, survive and eventually thrive in uncharted waters requires a level of general subject knowledge and experience-based knowledge to be brought to the decision process by all participants at all levels.  Not only must senior personnel understand leadership in this context, but also must those that will be led.


Next: Describing the disaster environment

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