Working Wounded Blog: Loyalty vs. Competence -- Whose Side Are You On?

News Flash: By everyone's account, the relief effort in New Orleans offered far too little, far too late.

I've always been a huge "loyalty" guy. I think that organizations that stand behind their people and bosses who stand behind their word are the only way to do business today. In fact, before this week I would have said that loyalty is the key ingredient for building a successful organization. That is, until the disaster that hit New Orleans.

Reading the accounts about the Federal Emergency Management Agency taught me that we learned nothing from 9/11. We did not anticipate what might go wrong, we were not prepared to move quickly and we had a communication system that wasn't able to get the job done.

Think I'm exaggerating? According to Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, as quoted in The New York Times: "When Wal-Mart sent three trailer trucks loaded with water, he said FEMA officials turned them away. Agency workers prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and on Saturday they cut the parish's emergency communications line, leading the sheriff to restore it and post armed guards to protect it from FEMA, Mr. Broussard said."

Given the need to rescue people and to make the street safe, armed guards actually had to be deployed to protect an emergency communication line from FEMA. It boggles the mind.

But it doesn't stop there. Also from the New York Times: "We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food and water," said Denise Bottcher, press secretary for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana. "They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart."

So what does this have to do with loyalty? Everything. I believe that if people were held accountable for the failures of 9/11, we could have a system in place to respond to catastrophes. People should have been reprimanded, people should have been fired and the message should have resounded through FEMA and every other governmental agency that failed: Just because you are a government worker, it doesn't mean that you are off the hook. "Good enough for government work" needs to be retired immediately.

FEMA is too darn important to leave to a bunch of hacks (if you think this is too strong, remember FEMA's boss didn't learn about all of those people at the Convention Center until a day after I had heard about it from CNN). We need people who either will get the job done or will get out of the way so they can be replaced by people who will. I'll leave it to Broussard of Jefferson Parish to ask the key questions, "Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired?" Until there are consequences for inaction throughout the federal government, every one of us is at risk.

Quote of the week:
"When elephants fight, only the grass gets hurt." -- Swahili proverb

Weekly book excerpt:
From "Manager's Handbook" by Robert Heller (DK, 2002)

"An effective approach for the operational aspects of organizing is to turn the hierarchical pyramid upside-down in everyone's thinking and behavior. This puts the customer firmly on top. This idea is revolutionary in many organizations. It stresses that whatever we do inside the organization, it must be for the benefit of the customer outside, and not for the managers and staff within. This demonstrates a different mindset … When this is recognized, the business priorities are highlighted."

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