Leadership Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina

December 10, 2018 | Greg Ketchum | HCI
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It was the fourth day since Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans, and as I walked out of the elevator in my 4-star French Quarter hotel I was met by a scene that stopped me dead in my tracks: the lobby was completely empty, and the front doors were chained and padlocked. Just the night before, there had been so many sweaty, desperate people in that lobby that I could hardly get through the crowd. Now, just eight hours later, I was the only person left in the entire hotel. I had been abandoned.

I had waited for the federal, state or local governments to get us out of New Orleans. I had waited for the Red Cross, the National Guard, the Salvation Army and other aid organizations to help. I had depended on the hotel management to take care of us. They had all, finally, failed.

As I stood in the hotel by myself, my thoughts became clear: If I was going to ever get out of New Orleans alive, it was going to be because of my own effort. I walked out of that hotel. I knew I wasn’t coming back.

1) Access, Trust and Act on Your Gut Intuition: As I walked out of the hotel a couple of New Orleans Police cruisers were headed down the street towards me and despite my best efforts to wave them down they sped by without even glancing my way. It was at that moment that I made what I later came to understand as the leadership switch. That is, I switched my focus from seeking direction outside of myself from authority figures to inside myself and my own intuition. I started making the decisions on how to get out of New Orleans that I had depended on others to make for me. I had to develop my ability to access, trust, and act on my intuition in real time in a life threatening situation.

2) Learning to be a Leader is an Experiential Process: Honestly, I wasn’t looking to develop my leadership potential during Katrina, but the failure of leadership on all levels forced me to tap into my leadership intuition to get myself out of New Orleans and harm’s way. This direct experience of having to engage my leadership instincts was a necessary step in learning to identify and trust myself and my intuition. I could not have learned how to do this nor experienced the power of it by simply reading about leadership.

3) The Ability to Deal with Reality is Key: As Katrina barreled down on New Orleans, all my expectations of how I thought my trip and time there with my daughter would be were shattered. My first response was an overwhelming feeling of this isn’t supposed to be happening now that consumed me. I could see other hotel guests struggling in the same way, but I came to realize that the sooner I accepted what was actually happening and started to figure out how to deal with it the higher my chances of survival would be. I had to quickly shift my internal frame of reference from what I thought was going to happen to match a new, radically changed external reality.

4) Develop Full Leadership Potential by Identifying and Owning Your Weaknesses: Katrina made me recognize, face, and push through a major weakness of mine: the fear of asking for help. After I set out on foot from the hotel I passed a couple of guys who were packing up a car getting ready to head out of town.  I knew this might be my only chance at securing a ride out of New Orleans, but I stepped back and hesitated. Feelings of shame for getting myself into this dependent position where I had to count on the kindness of strangers washed over me. A feeling of desperation propelled me past my fears, so I asked if I could ride with them. They told me they had no room and drove off. I was still stranded, but I had overcome a major weakness that could have kept me from eventually getting the help I needed.

5) Never Hand Over Complete Responsibility for Your Situation to “Authority Figures.” I had put my full faith in the hotel management to get us out of New Orleans, but on the third day after the storm struck I happened to overhear a conversation between a hotel manager and a New Orleans police officer and what I heard shocked me. The manager was saying that he was exhausted and wanted to go home to his family and suggested to the police that they close the hotel and force us all to walk to the New Orleans Convention Center, which we’d heard had become a violent hell hole. It was at that moment that I realized the mistake I’d made by handing over complete responsibility for my situation and naively trusting the hotel management to do the right thing. I had overlooked the fact that the hotel management were doing their best for us, but they also had their own self-interest to look after.