Public Comment

Commentary: The Problem with Leadership By KEN STANTON

Friday March 24, 2006

In recent years, academics and consultants have emphasized the critical importance of leadership to the success of government and business enterprises. Leadership conveys an image of military daring, while management has come to be viewed as a technical subject, of interest only to those who have not yet reached positions of leadership. This attitude fits well with the interests of politicians, who are unlikely to have management experience, but may feel well qualified to offer leadership. Moreover, attacks on the failings of government bureaucracy—real or imagined—resonate with voters. 

However, the common wisdom regarding the insignificance of management ignores the reality that government entities at every level are very large enterprises that must be well managed in order to accomplish the goals for which they were established, for which taxpayers spend a great deal of money, and on which everyone depends for critical services. After they are elected, politicians and their appointees sometimes forget that they are responsible for managing the government bureaucracy. Our recent national experience with disaster relief during and after Hurricane Katrina exemplifies the problem with substituting leadership for management. 

During a crisis, leadership is critical. Good leadership motivates people to improve their performance, gives them a sense of purpose, and assures them of moral support. Management is what happens before there is a crisis. Management is the routine, day-to-day organization and development of an enterprise’s capabilities, such as operations, distribution and communications. Without effective management, leadership, however good, is unlikely to be successful. 

The transcript of the Aug. 29 video teleconference organized by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) on the day Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast demonstrates a high level of leadership. The teleconference brought senior government officials, including the president of the United States and the secretary for the Department Homeland Security (DHS), into direct contact with state and national officials. 

In the teleconference, the president expressed sympathy for those affected and appreciation for those working on disaster relief. He assured everyone of the federal government’s full support. The secretary of DHS promised his department’s full support and made himself personally available should there be anything they needed from DHS “that you’re not getting.” The head of FEMA expressed his confidence in the “great team around here that know what they’re doing.” He told the participants that if they felt something needed to be done, just to “go ahead and do it. I’ll figure out some way to justify it.” 

Unfortunately, the transcript also demonstrates a very inadequate level of management. It is filled with comments from participants at all levels suggesting that little of the necessary support was already in place. A senior staffer in Louisiana reported that “we’re spending a lot of time right now making sure that we marry the appropriate state assets and the federal assets.” The director of FEMA said that “at some point we may want to reach out to the broader DHS and ask for . . . putting some men and women down there.” 

Finally, the Secretary of DHS wanted to know whether there were any Department of Defense “assets that might be available.” He asked whether DHS had “made any kind of arrangement in case we need additional help from them.” Given the timing of the teleconference, and the traditional reluctance of the federal government to insert the military into domestic roles, the response by FEMA’s director was not reassuring: “We are having those discussions with them now.” And the meeting was over. 

It is clear from this transcript that several critical elements of good management were lacking. First, no arrangements were in place for coordination among the multiple departments and agencies of the federal and state governments responsible for disaster relief. This was the original mandate of the Department of Homeland Security, and the reason it was created in the first place. 

Second, the federal bureaucracy was viewed as a barrier instead of a resource. This was highlighted when the director of FEMA told everyone, “I don’t want any of these processes in our way.” In essence, he was admitting that leaders at the highest levels of government had not established effective processes for accomplishing their mission. It was as if the CEO of a computer company had admitted to shareholders that the company’s manufacturing processes might get in the way of making computers! 

Third, although much of the meeting was devoted to reports from the field, the concerns identified were not addressed. The leaders in attendance expressed their support and concern, but their words were not operationally connected to an effective organizational response. Lacking an understanding of their role as managers, they did not understand that they were being asked to take action and to solve problems. The meeting ended without an action plan. There was no discussion of critical tasks to be accomplished, with defined deliverables, individuals assigned to accomplish the tasks, and times specified for completion. 

The notion of leadership derives much of its popularity from military mythology, from stories of heroic battles against overwhelming opposition. In this context, it is instructive that many military historians consider Napoleon to have been a better leader than Wellington, and Lee to have been a better leader than Grant. Good leadership, without good management, rarely determines successful outcomes in warfare, or in other large scale organizational endeavors. All organizations, including government agencies, must be well run in order to be well led.  


El Cerrito resident Ken Stanton works in Berkeley as a registered nurse.