We were “under pressure from … the president (of the United States).” General Van Antwerp emphasized the national urgency toward the re-building New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. However, “first we had to do a lot of restoring of the public trust.”
In order to regain the public trust he and the Corps developed a mapping system where they could show evacuated residents their inundated house under the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina. “Then they could push a button to see what [their house] would look like today if they had another Hurricane Katrina,” protected by the new dike system. “Later we got praised for being transparent.”
Van Antwerp went on to explain the countless number of town hall style gatherings and the endless number of neighborhood meetings he and his team undertook in the long, slow process of rebuilding the trust of those devastated and vanquished by Hurricane Katrina.
And he would know, Van Antwerp, at the time, was the chief engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers, hand picked by the U.S. Government to lead the effort to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Importantly, Van Antwerp chose not to direct the massive effort from a wood paneled office in Washington D.C. “I went fishing with those guys. I ate dinner with them. I went to crawfish boils. And everybody else between me and them did the same.”
Van Antwerp was clear in his answer to the critical question- who owns the crisis?
Rejecting the all-to-common executive response to delegate the front-line handling of the crisis, Van Antwerp sought to communicate, through his actions, the message that- “we got your backs”; or “we are not leaving until we get you back into your homes.” He understood that the only way to earn the trust of those who were displaced was to meet them on the ground, where they were temporarily sheltered, where they were lining up in food lines, where they were asking themselves the question ‘would it be easier to move somewhere else and give up on the great city of New Orleans?’
Through his and his team’s efforts to become neighbors, to share the same inconveniences, to immerse themselves in the daily process of regrouping and rebuilding, Van Antwerp and the Army Corps eventually won back the trust of those previously forced from their homes. According to datacenterresearch.org the population of New Orleans fell by more than 50% in 2005. By 2016 the population had substantially recovered to levels much closer to pre-Hurricane-Katrina levels.
In contrast, those leaders who decide to delegate the crisis, keeping some distance, while remaining in their ivory-tower offices, run the risk of communicating an opposite message, something like “good luck, things are so bad I don’t want my name involved;” or, “if you are lucky enough to recover, I’ll show up once conditions become more tolerable;” or, in the business world “your problems are not important to our organization’s Mission (or purpose).” Of course, in a significant crisis, one that could literally change the landscape of your organization, like the way losing the vibrancy of New Orleans would change the landscape of our great county, this is the opposite message that the leader wants to communicate.
Van Antwerp shared this amazing story in Fusion Leadership Unleashing The Movement of Monday Morning Enthusiasts. Fusion Leaders fixate on the process of “fusing” people together around a shared purpose, like rebuilding New Orleans. They understand that their behaviors are vital in communicating that they themselves, on a personal level, are committed to the Mission. They prioritize those highly visible events, even if it involves personal sacrifices, which challenge their organization’s ability to realize its Mission. They understand why these behaviors can inspire and motivate those in their charge.
Importantly, Fusion Leaders know how to answer the question- who owns the crisis?