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Strong Leadership Skills Can Soften Impact of Natural Disasters


Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in the United States in 100 years, devastated three U-S Gulf coast states in late August. Much of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, was inundated by floodwaters. Nearly one million Americans were left homeless. But federal, state, and local officials seemed overwhelmed, uncertain, and at times powerless during the critical first days of the crisis. Experts in the field of leadership believe there are ways to avoid a recurrence of the Katrina debacle -- by building and promoting good leadership skills.

A recent survey of Americans found that as many as 70 percent believe most of their leaders are not doing a good job. The survey was commissioned by Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership and the newsweekly magazine "U.S. News and World Report," which profiled 25 outstanding Americans who have consistently displayed good leadership from TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey to U.S. Army Lt. General David Petraeus.

What makes a good leader? Ronald Heifetz, the co-founder of Center for Public Leadership, says good leaders often emerge in a crisis -- and during that crisis, they make it a point to be visible. "What we saw after [the terrorist attack on New York City and near Washington, D.C. on] 9/11," he says, "was how important it was to the people of New York City that [Mayor Richard] was in the streets every day all day, and that he was also on TV so that people could see him at a greater distance. In times of disturbance, human beings turn to their authority figures to coordinate the protective response, and they look to those authority figures to find out, 'should we run in panic or is this a containable situation?'"

Leaders also show poise, says Ron Heifetz. "You need the capacity to, even if you feel panicky inside, to convey to people that, 'we can make it through this. We can contain even this disturbance,' that -- for all this tragedy and horror of a city flooded or the Twin Towers destroyed --'we can make it through this perilous 'strait,' he points out. "You also have to have an open enough heart, the emotional apparatus to be able to give voice to people's pain."

But Mr. Heifitz notes that good leaders must also move beyond appearances, and take action, "because there's only so much calm you can give people by your physical presence. What people are really going to be calmed by is action. So, for example, on the one hand [President]Franklin Roosevelt spent time being present to people - that was the point of his 'fireside chats' [on the radio] -at the height of the Depression in 1933; but at the same time, he had an extremely activist agenda -- and the activity itself also kept people from panicking and making the situation even worse," Mr. Heifitz explains. "Now in Roosevelt's case, a lot of those programs initiated the first 100 days [of his Administration] were discarded within the first 18 months of his presidency. He didn't know which would work or not, but action meant more than getting it right. You needed to act, then clean it up as you went along."

Leadership expert Ron Heifetz says that leaders are not necessarily born with special attributes but are motivated to lead by the circumstances around them - and ordinary people can be trained to be leaders.

Tom Bateman, a professor of public management at the University of Virginia, says that even charisma can be learned. "People often use the word, 'charisma,' when they describe great leaders or think of great leaders," he says. "That is a useful thing if you don't consider charisma to be some mystical, magical, indefinable thing that a person is born with or is not born with. The fact is: research has been done to indicate what it is people considered charismatic actually do," says Professor Bateman. "These are things that anybody can learn to do. Leaders considered to be charismatic have strong values and are willing and able to articulate what those values are. They stand for something. They can paint a vision of what they want to accomplish. Being articulate and compelling and persuasive in communication about what you care about and where you want to go - those aren't personality traits, but things people can learn to do better and hence, acquire charisma, so to speak, and potentially be more effective as a leader."

Tom Bateman says that in recent American history, two of the best examples of strong leadership are former U.S. Presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. "The classic example of great leadership was John Kennedy deciding to put a man on the moon - and announcing that, and then it happened. That's a great example of setting a goal, then articulating a vision that compels people," he says, adding "and creating the Peace Corp, a vision of what Americans can contribute to this world. Ronald Reagan's [demand in a speech at the Berlin Wall that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev] 'tear down this wall' speech was driven by a vision of communism weakening and democracy spreading. That's great leadership."

How do Americans find good leaders at the highest level? David Luberoff, a leadership expert at Harvard University, says there's already a system in place for that: free elections. "The measure of accountability in our system, in part, is if you didn't like the decision the government made, sooner or later you get the right to vote for a different government. If you did like it, you vote for it again," says Professor Luberoff. "I know that's sort of 'high school civics,' but I haven't figured out a better system yet. But it's the beauty of the American system: we do change. We do throw people out periodically because we don't like what they've done."

Or we become leaders ourselves. Experts in the field of leadership say there are many young men and women all over the country -in high schools, colleges, civic groups and local governments - who demonstrate their leadership abilities every day, often with little or no publicity. As Tom Bateman puts it: they "step up with an idea, present a proposal, and swing into action in ways that improve their group, the people around them, and their country."