Taking Charge

The Key to Being a Leader During Crisis? Break the Rules

Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper talks to the Lt. General who brought calm to New Orleans post-Katrina on how to lead during a crisis.

The key to crisis leadership is “break the rules, the rules were written for peacetime,” says Lt. General Russel L. Honoré, who brought calm to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. He remembered pilots telling him he had to create a manifest before they could evacuate people from the flooded areas. “We got guns, you don’t. Fly the damn planes,” Honoré told them.

“Rules will stop a recovery in its tracks,” he said, relating another story of people stranded at the airport and the authorities telling him they didn’t have the resources to process everybody. “Osama bin Laden was not in New Orleans,” he barked into the phone. “You’re looking for terrorists in all the wrong places.”

Honoré’s take-charge attitude and his military bearing restored people’s confidence in the government’s ability to handle the after-effects of Katrina after a very shaky start by the Bush administration. Speaking at The Daily Beast’s Hero Summit Thursday afternoon, Honoré said government today is far more prepared to deal with Katrina-like events, but the American people have not absorbed the lessons they should. He asked how many in the audience have five days’ worth of food and water at home. A sprinkling of hands went up, maybe 15 to 20 percent of the audience—“and some of them lie,” he exclaimed.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was asked how the government shutdown is affecting his state’s recovery from Biblical floods that are only seen perhaps once in 250 years. It’s different from Katrina, he said, noting that FEMA almost immediately had 100 people on the ground, “and they’re still working.” But the folks in Washington processing the extended paperwork are furloughed, and he can’t get the EPA to do testing on suspected e-coli on grass and parklands because they’re shut down. “It’s just a matter of time before kids get sick,” he said. All the agencies are “doing everything they can every single day but the shutdown slowed things down and put at risk people going through the most difficult time in their lives.”

The third member of the panel, William McNulty, is the co-founder and vice president of Team Rubicon, which takes veterans and puts them into non-profit disaster relief. They bring valuable skills to the effort, and in return, they get “purpose, identity, and community,” McNulty said. The slogan of Team Rubicon is “Bridge the Gap,” the gap between those who have served their country in uniform and an “American public that has been largely indifferent to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. The three panelists, each looking at leadership from a different perspective, agreed that decisiveness is key, as is assuring those who carry out your orders not to be afraid of making a mistake, that you will back them.