Out of Disaster, Power in Numbers
With floodwaters rising and their headquarters in the path, employees of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans knew they had no choice. On the morning of Aug. 30, 2005, more than 200 staffers and family members crowded into a convoy of delivery trucks and fled.
Editor Jim Amoss remembers crossing the Mississippi to one of the paper's suburban bureaus. There was no orderly plan for what to do now that Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city. Phones weren't working; colleagues worried about their families and homes; the mood bordered on hysteria. As they debated their next moves, "it became immediately apparent," Amoss says, "that our very survival as a publication depended on collaboration and cooperation."
The newspaper's staff ultimately banded together in a remarkable display of grit and ingenuity-succeeding against formidable odds. Their story illustrates a sea change in how leadership occurs. Research by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that organizations are shifting away from "top down" approaches, in which a few leaders call all the shots, in favor of more collective processes. In a world of rapidly changing information, the thinking goes, it is simply impossible for a few people to know all they must to make smart decisions. Their success is really tied to the initiative and judgments of people through-out their companies.
Few challenges have proved more overwhelming than the destruction wreaked by Katrina. To be sure, the crisis was marked by dismal failures of leadership. But there were inspiring displays of initiative as well. While some involved the heroics of individuals or the directives of military officers, in other cases entire groups exercised leadership on the spot-because they had to.
Best-laid plans. The staff of the Times-Picayune was one such group. Of course the paper has designated leaders throughout the organization, and they had planned for a hurricane by acquiring generators and practicing emergency plans. The newspaper had even written articles detailing what a major hurricane could do.
But the best-laid plans literally flew out the window when water swamped the generators and no one could communicate, even by cellphone. At the Times-Picayune that's when a new, unexpected kind of leadership emerged-one in which people at all levels banded together to do what they had to do: put out a newspaper.
This was no grand plan directed by senior editors. Katrina "dramatically leveled all hierarchical considerations," Amoss said. From the newsroom to the loading docks, individuals acted without being asked. And with water and lawlessness consuming New Orleans, it was a risky job. About a dozen journalists led by David Meeks, then the paper's sports editor, volunteered to return to the city's center. Their decision, Amoss says, was an "extraordinary moment of spontaneous leadership."
Meeks kayaked downtown to fetch supplies, reporting as he went. Later, in the parts of the city not flooded, Meeks and his crew trudged door to door looking for phone lines. They tried to steer clear of looters and worried about their truck. The members of the team, which included an editorial-page editor, an art critic, and a religion writer, weren't even accustomed to working with one another. Many stretched well outside the bounds of their expertise.