The testimony of Michael Brown, former FEMA director, to Congress today was appalling. This was the testimony of someone who was trying to posthumously save his reputation as a competent, capable administrator. While all of the blame for the lack of response from many authorities, local, state, and federal, does not rest at Brown's feet, the utter failure of Brown to make a compelling argument for what share of the burden rested with his agency reflects poorly on his leadership capabilities and calls into question the rigor inherent in vetting heads of national authorities.
What specifically caused me to have a visceral reaction against Brown's testimony was a segment of his opening statement. In it, Brown spoke of walking into command posts where nobody was in charge and chaos reigned. He had seen smoothly run operations in Florida, but the situation in Louisiana was completely different. There was no leader taking charge and organizing. Brown's complaints show his primary shortcoming as the director of FEMA--his failure to take charge in that room and make things happen.
The public elects people that it expects to be leaders. It also expects those leaders to appoint other leaders to organizations to drive results. Leadership is encountering a difficult situation, taking command, and driving to a satisfactory resolution. When I was a tank platoon leader, I had a company commander, Scott Cunningham, who said--probably quoting some famous general of history (if anyone can tell me who the general or the real quote is, I'd really appreciate it)--that a medicore plan executed aggressively is much better than the best plan never executed at all. Brown sat back and took a victim mentality to what was happening. Brown, Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin were and are not victims. The people who lost lives, homes, and suffered countless horrors are the victims, not the elected and appointed "leaders" who survived and then failed to act decisively.
Even if Brown did not have the direct authority to take command and start action, the right thing for him to do as a federally appointed leader was to step up and do it anyway. Proper chains of command could reemerge later, but at that point, the chain of command was a formless mass of unlinked parts, and Brown, the one that could have reformed that chain, failed miserably. He did the right thing only in stepping down from the role, and the government failed to do the right thing in firing him before he could step down.
The exposure of an incompetent administrator at the head of one of the nation's most important agencies calls into question the process by which these heads are chosen and the qualities that are requisite in a successful agency head. The first is indisputable--leadership. The federal government is and should be the backstop where local and state agents cannot handle situations, be it national defense, interstate regulations, or disasters. There will be times when those heads will face incredible hardships, war, catastrophe, and the like. These leaders should be willing to step into uncertain, chaotic situations and take command, tell the gathered that they are in charge, and to follow them.
While President Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and many others distinguished themselves with exemplary shows of leadership in the 9/11 period, the victims of hurricane Katrina are suffering from a nearly equivalent lack of leadership. What the federal government needs is not people looking to shirk responsibility and lay blame at the feet of others, as Michael Brown attempted to do today, but rather leaders who can galvanize and drive results in times of dire need.