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Needed: Ethical Leadership in the Aftermath of Katrina

By Dr. Walter Earl Fluker

One cannot begin to understand the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina without noting the failure of leadership at federal, state and local levels. As the many critics emerge to speak about the damage wrought by the hurricane, few are speaking to the larger questions of ethical

leadership, and how such failures of leadership have played out in the Gulf Coast. The questions of race, class and culture loom large in any intelligent appraisal of the recent events, but the fundamental challenge is not one particular issue, but a conglomerate of competing interests, narrow visions and indifference. These things all collide at the intersection of what German social theorist Jürgen Habermas called “lifeworlds” and “systemworlds.”

I recently listened to conservative talk show hosts discussing the claims of a number of prominent African-Americans, who suggested that the slow response by the federal government was an indication of what Blacks have been saying all along: America does not care about its Black and poor citizens. I was struck by the responses of the talk show hosts and their callers, who dismissed these claims as paranoia, race baiting and superfluous. I, for one, do believe that race played a major role in the poor preparedness of disaster organizations and the lackadaisical reaction of officials at all levels. But I quickly add that while this is true, it does not help us as citizens deal with a more immediate and fundamental issue.

There is a failure of ethical leadership in American society that crosses racial, political, social and cultural lines. The failure of ethical leadership is far more dangerous and costly, and in the end, more damaging than even the worst hurricanes that wreak devastation on our shores.
How a nation with the vast material and technical resources that we possess could allow 48 hours to pass before responding to such an enormous national crisis is not only a racial or political problem, but a problem of leadership — ethical leadership.

Much of the public debate that is emerging around the current crisis is emblematic of the demise of the kind of leadership that is so sorely needed at this critical juncture in our history. Far beyond the blame-shame game that is being played out, how do we deal with the crisis at hand? Questions of race, ethnicity and class must be addressed. But most importantly, it will be the critical task of leaders to infuse the ethical dimension into any inquiry so that objective, historical and subjective questions are systematically explored. The ethical question asks more than “What went wrong?” It asks, “What is going on?” “Who makes the rules?” and “Who enforces the rules?” I am afraid that honest, forthright answers to these questions will not come from elected or appointed officials, but from informed leaders who care deeply about the future of American society.

The Bush administration, Homeland Security, FEMA, the governor of Louisiana and the local officials of all the areas impacted by the storm (especially in New Orleans, where the death toll continues to rise), deserve varying levels of criticism and blame for the failure to respond quickly and efficiently. I am sure the survivors of this catastrophe and an outraged citizenry will have much to say as time passes. But any critique that does not raise the ethical questions surrounding these issues will miss the point entirely.  Among the questions are:

– The question of integrity. Where was the integrity in the decision-making to prepare and respond to Hurricane Katrina? We expect leaders to demonstrate integrity in respect to public trust. Prior to Aug. 29, public officials knew the risks associated with a Category 4 hurricane hitting New Orleans, yet economics and politics overruled good science, common sense and moral judgment. Now the social and fiscal costs far outweigh the initial investment in sound levees and disaster preparedness education that could have been put in place before the storm. 

– The question of empathy. Leaders must empathize with others — beyond family, tribe, clan, class or political affiliation. Learning to empathize with others before tragedy is perhaps more important than the public grief that occurs after the fact.

– The question of hope. Beyond the promises from the president, Congress, state and local governments to rebuild New Orleans and the other affected areas along the Gulf Coast, leaders must instill hope. Not the vacuous sentimentality that disguises itself as hope for political advantage, but hope demonstrated through concrete, long-term proposals that address the larger structural and cultural issues that contributed to the tragic aftermath of Katrina.

In the months and years ahead, America will be engaged in rebuilding the stricken areas along our beautiful Gulf Coast. The larger task of rebuilding, however, will be to develop a new generation of ethical leaders who possess competencies and skills rooted in integrity, empathy and hope — leaders who dare to stand at the dangerous intersection where vast, impersonal systemworlds meet, and often collide, with our fragile and precious lifeworlds — and help us to negotiate the traffic.

— Dr. Fluker is the Coca-Cola Professor of Leadership Studies and executive director of the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. 

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