I sensed Louisiana was in real trouble when I first saw FEMA head Michael Brown on the TV news. He seemed like the nice guy you’d meet on a golf course Wednesday afternoons with his buddies sipping brewskis, elated at escaping work for the rest of the day.
But nice guy wasn’t what victims of Hurricane Katrina needed. They needed an old-fashioned leader. They needed a chain-smoking guy in a stiff tie who barked orders into the phone.
Pundits and politicians are blaming anyone they can for the dramatic failures of leadership during Katrina. But I fault the baby boomer culture that spawned weenie leaders. Since the day that Bill Clinton (born in 1946) denied he had sexual relations with that woman, I’ve been tracking weenie actions by leaders from my generation.
When boomer leaders experience failures of leadership, and we have boat loads of examples from Katrina, I feel nostalgic for more decisive ways of leadership, for leaders from older times. I feel nostalgic for Abraham Lincoln who suffered such severe depressions that he wouldn’t even be able to run for office now, let alone end slavery while in a fit of melancholy.
Let my blame-game begin. When boomer leaders act like weenies, blame:
Magical thinking. We were the first generation to grow up on television cartoons. The Road Runner cartoon series debuted in 1952. The speedy bird was chased by Wile E. Coyote, but it was usually Coyote who got flattened like a pancake. Within a few seconds, however, he would recover, shake himself back to full form, with “Beep Beep” echoing in his ears.
If creatures can get flattened then come back to life, anything is possible. This is magical thinking. Maybe it prompted President Bush (born in 1946) to laud Brown (born in 1954) with the words: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” when in reality the efforts led by Brown had gone flat as pancakes.
Let me think about It. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco is not a boomer. The boomer generation stretches from 1946 to 1964; she was born in 1942. But during Katrina, she behaved like a boomer. She delayed action while seeking input from others. She sought advice from her legal counsel, and then she hired her own disaster-response adviser.
Collaborative leadership, pioneered mostly by boomer women, is an inclusive, respectful and satisfying way to lead. But it’s useless in a crisis. Blanco should have done her best Betty Davis imitation and barked orders to anyone who could make things happen in her state.
Mistakes were made. The phrase mistakes were made has no subject. When boomer leaders screw up, they blame the universe. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (born in 1956) was bitching from the beginning about the governor and the feds. Instead, he should have imitated former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is not a boomer.
During Sept. 11, Giuliani went days without sleep, attended dozens of funerals and even walked brides down aisles in place of their dead fathers. Giuliani acted rather than acted out. He role-modeled what mayors are supposed to do in crisis, no matter who else is supposed to do something.
We boomers are eager to take credit for success, and slow to accept blame for failure, because we competed for everything in life, especially jobs. Any admission of weakness might mean being booted out of the game.
Brownie excused himself from the game Tuesday, resigning so he wouldn’t be a distraction. I wish he had said: “I made mistakes. People died because of them. I’m truly sorry.”
In fairness to my generation, boomer leaders did emerge from the horror of Katrina. They stayed behind in hospitals to care for the most vulnerable. They drove their own boats down flooded streets and rescued strangers. They opened their homes to victims and organized relief at shelters.
We’ll never know most of their names. And, unfortunately, most of them won’t ever run for public office. But they sure did a heck of a job.
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