When Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, it left in its wake untold destruction. One of the casualties was any assurance we may have had about the ability of existing leadership systems and strategies to adequately address the broad and unpredictable array of demands in a catastrophic crisis.

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Katrina. Using an array of facilitation techniques, we overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership.

What we found is that when crises such as Katrina overwhelm the capacity of formal systems and structures, new leadership systems take shape and emergent leaders step into the void, playing critical and improvised roles in rescue and rebuilding efforts.

The dialogue at the forum also indicates that leadership in mega-crises requires a systemic response that extends beyond the leadership capabilities of any individual or single organization. The leadership response required pulls in different—and sometimes opposing—directions: planning and improvisation . . . top-down and bottom-up leadership . . . individual leadership and collective capabilities . . . critical short-term crisis response and sustained long-term capabilities.

The individuals and organizations that rose to the challenges brought by Katrina, some of whom are profiled in this report, were the ones who worked collectively to improvise a response as physical and human systems.

Additional Compilation by Rebecca Garau

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