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Vol. 3, No. 12
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

Katrina and Rita: What Leaders Need to Do When Crisis Strikes

Extraordinary leaders do things that ordinary leaders won’t do, but extraordinary leaders are made, not born.

 © Copyright by William A. Cohen 2005


In recent days I’ve been asked to do a lot of radio interviews on my new book, Secrets of Special Ops Leadership” Dare the Impossible; Achieve the Extraordinary. Sometimes I do as many as nine or ten interviews a day, right from my home office and over the telephone. Through the magic of satellites and modern technology, in just a few minutes I am speaking all over the country, one minute in Boston, then not so long later in New York, Chicago, Texas, Florida, Kentucky, California, you name it. It’s pretty easy. My publisher and her publicist sets up the interviews days ahead of time and controls the scheduling. I get a telephone call that in five minutes I’ll be on with so-and-so. That interview ends, and the process is repeated and I am on to the next. Unfortunately they start as early as 4:30am, so I need to get up at “o’dark thirty.” That’s not much fun.  However, usually by 9:00am, I am done and I have covered the country. Some of these are live, others taped. Some are call-in, for others, it a discussion session between me and the program’s host or hostess.

Almost invariably our discussions turn to the recent Gulf States storms and the death and destruction the terrible storms of Katrina and Rita have brought to the Gulf Coast area. Both interviewers and listeners  want to know whether the situation would be  better had better leadership been demonstrated and what went wrong with the leaders we had. I’m asked about the poor planning, the failure to take responsibility and finger-pointing, the failure to act or to make decisions that could have saved lives, why aid arrived so late, and more. 

They ask me what would have been the one thing that I wish these leaders had done. I tell them that that is easy. It is still what I would wish. Special Ops leaders do things that ordinary leaders won’t do. I wish that all of our leaders from local leaders right on up the line adopted the practices of special ops leadership. 

Now those who know me know that I am not talking about swaggering around and talking tough. Business is NOT war,  though they do share some things in common. Adopting some sort of Hollywood notion as to how military leaders behave is nonsense. Moreover, as management guru Peter Drucker has said, there are important leadership lessons to be learned from leadership in battle that are direct applicable to how we handle crises like Katrina and Rita or crises in business. And I can guarantee you that those who put down what has been learned from 7000 years of leadership in battle as “command and control leadership,” simply don’t know what they are talking about and have probably never experienced leadership in either the military or in combat other than in a movie.  

As Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America and currently Chairman of the Leader-to-Leader Institute says in her book Be-Know-Do: “Leadership matters. It matters in the life and death situations in which a lack of trust, teamwork, of clear focus, confidence, and motivation could spell disaster – leadership matters in combat.” (My emphasis). Ms. Hesselbein recommends adapting  the principles of combat leadership to any organization. So do I.

Well, special ops leadership is the epitome of the very best of leadership in battle because in special ops situations it is the few against the many in many times near impossible, life and death situations.  My research, not only into U.S. special ops leadership practices: Special Forces, Rangers, Seals, Delta Force, Marine Recon, Air Commandos, but also into foreign special ops such as the British SAS or the Israeli Sayeret Makal  demonstrates that there are common threads throughout the world of special ops leadership. Even looking at special ops leadership during World War II and in earlier times and eventually going back 7000 years into antiquity, I found certain things that commando leaders of all times share common practices. They truly do things that other ordinary leaders do not  do. 

Consider the Biblical special ops leader, Gideon, in his battle against the Midianaites. He had inferior numbers of Hebrew warriors, only 22,000,  to go against many more their number of the enemy. However, Gideon knew he had to have the best. That’s one of the 14 common practices of commando leaders that I found from my research.  Gideon created the best for his special ops force. Through a series of screening tests he did the counterintuitive thing and reduced the number of his warriors from 22,000 to only 300. You and I both know that most ordinary leaders claim they have too few resources in human and other resources to accomplish a task, not too many.  Adopting another of the  14 common practices of special ops leaders, Gideon dared the impossible with these 300 commandos, and of course he achieved the extraordinary. If you want to see how he did this and the incredible results he achieved, I direct you to chapter 7 of the Book of Judges in The Holy Scriptures (The Bible).

But let’s get back to the leadership response to Katrina and Rita. You may have seen the images on television of the hundreds of school buses, parked in rows in flooded New Orleans. Government officials were asked why they didn’t evacuate New Orleans with these buses.  Everyone knew that the storm was coming, why didn’t they take this simple precaution? First you saw these leaders scrambling wildly for excuses. They didn’t have the authority. It was someone’s else’s responsibility. They needed to get permission from someone else.  They didn’t have the vehicles etc. Finally, they asked the mayor of New Orleans. 

In the background were these hundreds of abandoned buses,  now marooned and made immovable by flooding. The mayor agreed that they had the buses. “But we didn’t have the drivers,” he said. “Someone should have sent us drivers.” Come on, Mr. Mayor! Many who have formerly driven a bus aren’t driving them now. Maybe they retired. Couldn’t you have put out an emergency call for them? Or did you try to fly drivers from outlying areas? Many who can drive a car can drive a bus, too, with a little instruction. Did you try that? Mr Mayor, it was your responsibility. You have to do something.

Are these alternatives without risk? Absolutely not! But this is a life or death situation. This is a crisis. It isn’t business as usual. Commando leaders know that under these circumstances they need to innovate — not do the usual and go to the standard rule book. If all those buses had been used with emergency drivers, many of those that died could probably have been saved.

Interestingly, in Texas almost this identical situation occurred and the governor made the decision to waive the rules where it was necessary to get those endangered out of the way of the storm. Here it wasn’t a question of a shortage of drivers. Rather it was the number of available buses. One emergency bus did catch fire and a number of tragic deaths occurred because patients who couldn’t move without help were in that bus. It is unclear whether the waiver had anything to do with the fire or not. In any case the governor of Texas was questioned about this the next day. He not only took responsibility, he reminded his questioner that lives were at stake and if all had not been evacuated more lives would probably have been lost. He said that in a crisis situation, he would chose to take the risk. Moreover if he had to make the decision again, he would do the same thing. Now that governor followed the important commando practice of accepting full blame when things went wrong, and this helped him inspire others with his vision for getting the job done. Others knew that they could afford to take the right, but risky decision if they had to, and he would not punish them if things went wrong. And frankly, in my opinion, the governor made the right decision.

Or maybe you saw the picture of miles of trucks loaded with relief aid for the hurricane-ravaged areas stopped on the roadway. Some bureaucrat stopped them,  presumably because “conditions weren’t safe” in the areas that had been hit. Well of course these areas weren’t safe. Why did he think the relief aid was coming, anyway? Again, exactly the opposite of special ops leadership practices where leaders take charge, make the tough decisions and take the risks to do the right thing. 

You see, ordinary, “business as usual” leaders are not focused  on the right thing to do. That’s not their first priority.  It is not that they don’t know the right thing. Most aren’t stupid. They know what they should do. However, they are more afraid of making the wrong decision, or one for which they will be criticized later. So they follow  the old narrow interpretation of what they should do, or they delay making any decision at all, hoping someone else will make a decision for them, or that things will somehow right themselves out of crisis without them having to do anything. This ever happens.

These are literally fair weather leaders, good only as long as nothing goes wrong. Unless their outlook can be changed, it’s probably better to get rid of them now, before you have a crisis situation with which  they won’t be able to cope. 

By contrast, it’s not that commando leaders don’t care about their future careers. They do. But between their future personal welfare and doing the right thing to help others and the crisis situation, they prefer to do the right thing at personal cost to themselves now or in the future. That’s why they are commando leaders, and everyone who knows them knows this as well.

What do leaders need  to do in crisis situations?  They should begin to adopt the 14 special ops practices I discuss in Secrets of Special Ops Leadership before crisis comes. These are:

14 Special Ops Practices for

Extraordinary Business or Organizational Success

  1. Create the Best.  To achieve the extraordinary, you need extraordinary people.  Commandos, however, aren’t born but made.  Creating them involves three stages:  locate and recruit volunteers, screen and select the cream of candidates, train and motivate for excellence.   However, sometimes they can be created under pressure and in whatever limited time available. This is more difficult, but it can still be done. You must create the best.           
  1. Dare the Impossible.  Give your commandos demanding, high-impact jobs, and the results will blow you away.  Give them anything less and not only will your resources be wasted, but your commandos will soon be off seeking challenges somewhere else.        
  1. Throw the Rule Book Away.  Commandos thrive on innovation.  As the chief innovator, you need to stay alert to opportunities and threats in your environment, encourage a shared vision with clear goals, develop a tolerance for the unusual and bizarre, and reward bold ideas that work.   
  1. Be Where the Action Is.  A true leader leads from the front.  Whether in battle or business, a special ops leader must share the risks, the hardships, and the defeats as well as the victories.  
  1. Commit and Require Total Commitment.  If you are totally committed to a project or purpose, your commandos will follow you, regardless of the sacrifices.  To show uncommon commitment to your commandos, communicate face-to-face, make commitments public, and don’t stop when the going gets rough.
  1. Demand Tough Discipline.  If you want your organization to succeed, you have to help your commandos develop self-discipline.  Require obedience to the rules at all times, with no exceptions.  Set the example by obeying rules from above. 
  1. Build a Commando Team.  Commandos don’t work as individuals.  Building an outstanding commando team happens in four stages:  getting organized, fighting it out for the right course of action, getting the team to pull together, and keeping the team moving forward to get the job done, exceptionally well.
  1. Inspire Others to Follow Your Vision.  As a leader, you must first have a clear vision of where you want your organization to go and what you want it to be, and then make it compelling and meaningful to others.  Promote your vision with a motto and other tools.  Live your vision every day.                         
  1. Accept Full Blame; Give Full Credit.  You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.  Hold your commandos accountable for their failures, but don’t leave them “holding the bag.”  When your commandos persist and prevail, give them credit for the victory – completely, unselfishly, and publicly.  When things go wrong, no matter that one of your commandos made the mistake, accept full responsibility yourself.
  1. Take Charge!  To be the kind of leader that commandos will respect and follow, you must dominate the situation right from the outset, establish your objectives early in the game, communicate with your team, act boldly and decisively, lead by example, and follow your instincts. This is what the real special ops leaders did when Katrina and Rita hit. When all this settles down, you will see that there were real heroes in the eye of the storm, as well as real goats.
  1. Reward Effectively.  Commandos perform above the call of duty for reasons beyond money.  Recognition for jobs exceptionally well done can come in many forms.  To be effective, rewards should be timely, fair (and justifiable), tied to specific accomplishments, and important to the people working to receive them – and this is true about monetary rewards or anything else. Rewarding the wrong people is worse than no reward for anyone.
  1. Make the Most of What You Have.  Leaders don’t always have the luxury of creating commandos from scratch.  Yet, with the right approach, it is possible to transform virtually anyone – even so-called misfits – into a valuable commando team player.  Focus on developing cohesion through pride in team membership, teamwork, and high morale, at both the individual and group levels.   
  1. Never Give Up.  Perseverance makes all the difference.  You can get high levels of performance if you imbue your commandos with mental toughness, warn them away from rigidity in their thinking, and lead them by demonstrating your own determination to see things through, regardless of adversity.      
  1. Fight to Win.  Commandos do business to win.  This doesn’t mean you have to lie, cheat, steal, or forfeit your integrity.  True commandos lead the way to victory by example.  In commando-run organizations, there’s an eagerness to take risks, a determination to overcome all obstacles, and a look in the eyes of every employee you just don’t find in other companies or organizations.          

Remember, special ops leaders do things that ordinary leaders won’t do. I hope you and all of the leaders in your organizations are special ops leaders.



Published by AMACOM last month, SECRETS OF SPECIAL OPS LEADERSHIP: DARE THE IMPOSSIBLE – ACHIEVE THE EXTRAODINARY represents my recent massive study into special operations leadership techniques — not just one special ops organization, and not just U.S. special ops, but foreign as well. So there are techniques gleamed from U.S. Special Forces, Delta Force, SEALS, Marine Recon, Air Commandos, Rangers, SAS, Israeli Sayeret Makal and more going back not just to World War II, but through 7000 years of warfare. This is NOT a “business is war” book, but you will learn how to apply these eye opening concepts directly to business and other organizations.

Frances Hesselbein, former President of the Girl Scouts of America, Chairperson of the Leader to Leader Institute said:

“Leaders in all three sectors will find inspiration in the fourteen strategies this remarkable new leadership resource provides. It’s not about theory. but stirring lessons from leaders in action in every chapter.”

Former Ranger Brace Barber, author of No Excuse Leadership said:

Immediately engaging. Immediately useful. Invaluable insights for business leaders who want to gain a competitive advantage by taking ordinary resources and using them extraordinarily.”

Available now online or at your local bookstore.

Also, I’m happy to announce my new seminar, not yet described elsewhere on this web site. Its name says it all: “Dare the Impossible; Achieve the Extraordinary: 14 Special Ops Leadership Practices That Really Matter in Your Organization.” Contact me about my speaking to your organization at or (626) 791-8973.


“In forty hours I shall be in battle, with little information, and on the spur of the moment will have to make momentous decisions. But I believe that one’s spirit enlarges with responsibility and that with God’s help, I shall make them right.” 

– General George S. Patton, Jr.