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The Power of a Collaborative Mindset

After Hurricane Katrina, it was collaborative leadership that returned order to New Orleans and improved rescue and recovery efforts.

On Monday morning, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It was the costliest and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history. Billions of people around the world watched in disbelief as the world's superpower seemed astonishingly unable to save the inhabitants of a major city. Government at all levels failed the people of New Orleans despite the valiant efforts of thousands of people.

Most of the anger was focused on FEMA, the federal government's emergency management agency, and its director Michael Brown. In the months after being fired due to FEMA's poor performance, Brown argued that he had managed FEMA well but couldn't control agencies outside of his authority. In fact, Brown's statement reflects a mindset totally inappropriate to his task. Brown was thinking hierarchically; he saw his job as managing his agency. But as Donald F. Kettl argues in The Next Government of the United States, Brown's primary job during the disaster was to think horizontally and develop partnerships. No single agency could deal with this disaster; it required a coalition.

On September 9, Thad Allen replaced Michael Brown to lead the search, rescue and recovery efforts. His no-nonsense demeanor restored a sense of confidence. Over the next three weeks, approximately 60,000 people were rescued from New Orleans -- 33,500 of them by the Coast Guard. A sense of order returned to the city, rescue and recovery efforts improved and political players started to cooperate. Allen received considerable credit for this improvement. How did he do it?

He began by inviting a number of his most trusted colleagues to work with him in New Orleans. Then, when Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco issued a blistering statement criticizing the federal government for failing to retrieve bodies from New Orleans waters, Allen called her. He asked, "Governor, have I done something to give you the impression that I'm interested in anything but helping the people of Louisiana?" That call softened her criticism and bought some time.

Within 24 hours of arriving, Allen and Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore`(commander of the Katrina Joint Task Force) established a planning group. They reported daily to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Blanco on their goals for the next day. Allen told those reporting to him that they were to treat everyone in New Orleans "as though they were members of your own family."

Allen then acted on one of his favorite sayings, "Transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior." He opened the recovery process to the media, inviting them to become a partner in telling the public what was being done to help the residents.

Allen also relied on an approach refined by the Coast Guard over the years: focus on "strategic intent." Rather than develop detailed plans, he and his partners agreed on a general direction and major priorities, determined who was responsible for what and emphasized constant communications and flexibility


As a result of these approaches, Allen's team was able to leverage about 130 boats from other organizations. They got local responders to share knowledge of the city with those who came from elsewhere. They allowed themselves to work more closely with the government and nonprofits on the rescue and cleanup.

As painful as Katrina was (and still is), its lessons are powerful for anyone interested in collaboration. The table below captures the key differences between Brown's and Allen's approaches. My point isn't to portray one as a superhuman hero and the other as totally responsible for inept government responses to Katrina. No single person was responsible for either the failures or the successes. The reason for contrasting Brown's and Allen's leadership styles is simply this: their performance during Katrina reflects some key differences between a bureaucratic-hierarchical style, and a collaborative approach.

Two Different Mindsets

Michael Brown Thad Allen
Focus Manage his agency Lead a network
Key assumptions Can only use formal authority to accomplish goals Can use relationships, influence, the media and peer pressure to achieve goals
Need senior leader support to succeed Need strong partnerships pulling in same general direction to succeed
Go by the book Be flexible, use requirements of the situation to set your course
Communications Control the message tightly "Shine a light" on the operations, show the public our work
Political power You gain power through access to senior leaders You gain power by listening, speaking truth to power, making good on promises and delivering results
To be sure, there are many times when a hierarchical leadership style is appropriate. But large, complex challenges require a collaborative mindset. In New Orleans, Thad Allen gave us a clinic on how a collaborative mindset works.

Note: This column is excerpted from Russ Linden's new book, Leading Across Boundaries: Creating Collaborative Agencies in a Networked World.

A management consultant, educator and author
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