CHDS thesis analyzes meta-leadership during, after Katrina

Colonel Lee Smithson

Colonel Lee Smithson

For much of the American public Hurricane Katrina is synonymous with government shortcomings, but Center for Homeland Defense and Security master’s degree graduate Colonel Lee Smithson knows better.

Many remember the video footage of near societal breakdown in Louisiana and the finger pointing that ensued. But for Smithson and his peers in Mississippi, the historically epic hurricane illustrated how meta-leadership rose above the waters. Smithson’s CHDS thesis, “Meta-Leadership in a Mega Disaster: A Case Study of Governor Haley Barbour’s Leadership During Hurricane Katrina,” provided a case study using a CHDS course concepts of meta-leadership as its basis.

The thesis was cited in Barbour’s recently released book “America’s Great Storm,” co-authored with Jere Nash, and much of Smithson’s CHDS research into the facts surrounding the disasters were incorporated in the tome.

“Our conclusions are that Governor Barbour epitomized the tenets of meta-leadership and that, given the proper academic environment, meta-leadership can be replicated,” wrote Smithson, Director of Military Support
with the Mississippi National Guard.

Smithson’s thesis centered around five practices of what is called “meta leadership”: 1) the person of the leader and his awareness or problem assessment; 2) the situation, problem, change, or crisis that compels response; 3) leading one’s entity and/or operating in one’s designated purview of authority; 4) leading up to bosses or those to whom one is accountable; and 5) leading cross-system connectivity.

“Furthermore, the meta-leaders are constantly analyzing the situation and modifying their perspective in order to constantly integrate all resources seamlessly and in a timely manner,” Smithson wrote.

In reviewing existing academic literature, though, Smithson found abundant research on the traits, but a dearth of tangible case studies. Granted ample access to Barbour, Smithson set about documenting the former governor’s actions and decisions in context of the Katrina tragedy. Meanwhile, Barbour was writing a book on his experience during the catastrophe. Much of the factual research on events conducted by Smithson for his CHDS thesis was incorporated into the book.

“In the Governor’s book he listed the top 10 things he learned,” Smithson said. “One of the biggest was when you are in leadership position like that, in a catastrophic event, you have to get people who don’t necessarily work for you to do what you want them to do. He didn’t really understand that he had done that until he read my thesis.”

Barbour was able enlist the state legislature, state agencies along with an array of federal organizations and the private sector into the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal which is credited with reviving the state following the hurricane. The group, with Barbour leading, was able to invest in long-term recovery strategies geared toward job creation. Absent was the rancor and sniping between federal and state officials that plagued recovery in other areas.

After completing his research, Smithson concluded that more education on meta-leadership skills is sorely missing from the homeland security enterprise. Among the leadership trends of recent times, Smithson contends meta leadership is critical to future catastrophic events.

In addition to applying the concept to his own work, Smithson has taught the basics of meta leadership to other agencies in Mississippi.

Without the CHDS program, he said, he would not have been able to pursue study of the leadership issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina and the implications for future catastrophic events.

“This is my second master’s degree,” he said. “The Army War College pales in comparison to CHDS. I would have never taken the initiative on my own to study what CHDS taught me.”

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