When disaster strikes, how should leaders respond in order to minimize damage and save lives?
On Sept. 14, former and current governmental leaders shared their experiences managing crises in the talk “Follow Me: Citizens, Soldiers and Crisis Leadership” at the Gertrude C. Ford Center.
The panel was moderated by former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott and hosted by the Army Heritage Center Foundation and BGR Group, a lobbying firm, on behalf of the United States Army Heritage Center and the Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence.
Members of the panel included former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx, former Press Secretary of the Pennsylvania Governor Paul Critchlow and former Secretary of Transportation Sam Skinner.
The focus of the event was to elucidate how politicians and leaders navigate “the kind of crisis that touches hundreds of thousands of lives, the kind that depends on relationships, open communication and, fundamentally, trust,” said Geoffrey Mangelsdorf, the director of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.
The panelists acknowledged that the most important tasks in a time of crisis are to work together and to utilize the advantages of Meta-leadership, a framework employed by the military to guide decision-making during crises.
Crises faced by Barbour, Birx, Critchlow and Skinner include the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear reactor.
Skinner maintained that the most vital step in leadership during a crisis is to try to understand the problem through communication. Birx then asserted that good leaders consult their constituents to maintain their support.
“I’ve watched what great leaders have done, they always go to where the problem is. Why?” Birx asked. “Because you have to listen first. And I think when you hear someone talking that hasn’t listened first, you lose the public.”
When a tragedy occurred, changes had to be made to better prepare for the next. Barbour insisted that after the impact of Hurricane Camille on Mississippi in 1969, the state started preparing for a hurricane of that size every year.
He maintained that the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was incomparable to Camille.
“The more you prepare, the better off you’re going to be, even if you prepare for the wrong things, even if you made the wrong decision on this or that,” Barbour said. “And it (Hurricane Katrina) was the worst natural disaster in American history at the time. All of us who are Mississippians know how bad it was. But we have adjusted from that almost immediately.”
Leadership requires collaboration amongst many.
“When it comes to disaster,” Lott said, “You’re not a Democrat, or a Republican, you’re an American.”
The final question of the night urged panelists to consider what lies in the future.
“What do you believe our next crisis will be? Domestic or international?” Lott said.
While the audience and panelists considered in silence for a few moments, an unidentified voice from the audience responded.
“It will be cyber,” they said.
In an interview with The Daily Mississippian after the event, Lott shared his opinion about where he thinks the next major crisis will arise from.
“We will always have crisis management issues that we will have to deal with domestically,” Lott said. “But I do think that the greatest threat is in the international arena.”