The story of Katrina prompts two questions. First, we should ask why the Bush administration attracted much of the public blame for the seemingly inadequate response to Katrina. Even a cursory review of reports and analysis reveals numerous failures at the local and state level, as perhaps may be expected in the wake of a deadly hurricane. Yet it was President Bush who saw his remaining years in office weighed down by the public perception of failure. Mayor Nagin of New Orleans was re-elected. The first question leads to a second, more pertinent one, which asks why President Bush clung to a blame management strategy that clearly did not work. We believe his leadership style may offer an answer.
Two dimensions of leadership style have been shown especially relevant in understanding leadership during crises: a leader's need for control and a leader's sensitivity to context (Hermann and Preston 1994; Preston and Hermann 2004). The need for personal control or involvement in the policy-making process varies across leaders, leading some to be more ‘hands on’ and involved, while others depend more upon subordinates and their bureaucracies. Some leaders will be more sensitive to context and seek out more information than others, which means leaders will vary greatly in terms of how quickly they ‘perceive’ essential elements of evolving crisis situations, how aware they are of events, and how quickly they will make decisions based on the information at hand. We briefly elaborate on both dimensions of leadership style below.
Need for control/involvement
In routine policy-making circumstances, the degree of control or personal involvement insisted upon by leaders appears to be related to their individual needs for power (Winter 1973; McClelland 1975; House 1990). Those with high power needs are typically ‘hands on’. They insist on direct involvement and control over decision-making processes, actively put forward their own policy views, seek to set the agenda for their followers, centralize decision making within their inner circle of advisers, and are unlikely to delegate decision making to subordinates, hence limiting the scope for bureaucratic politics among their advisers (Preston and 't Hart 1999; Preston 2001). Leaders of this type are likely to place themselves at the heart of all key processes and decisions during a crisis. Typically, leaders with less control needs wield a hands-off approach. They focus on critical decisions, which, by definition, are important but relatively rare (Selznick 1957). They leave the implementation of these critical decisions to hand-picked subordinates, people whom they trust and rely on. This style is known as the business executive style of governance.
Leaders may benefit from a public perception of hands-on leadership style, that is, if the public perceives the crisis response to be effective and successful. Visibility, however, also makes it much harder to avoid blame if the response comes to be perceived as a failure. In contrast, less controlling leaders run the risk of either not receiving full credit for good crisis management or getting a large measure of the blame for failure (because of their perceived lack of involvement or engagement on such a critical matter). Moreover, bureau-political conflict is far more likely with this kind of style (Preston and 't Hart 1999), which can lead to public in-fighting between various officials and agencies during the aftermath. This makes it more difficult to deflect blame, since the disjointed and internally divided response is likely to be seen as a consequence of the leader's ‘less engaged’ management style.
Sensitivity to context
Another important dimension of leadership style is the leader's sensitivity to context and need for information before being able to make decisions. Scholars of leadership have observed substantial differences across American presidents and other world leaders in terms of their ‘cognitive need’ for information prior to making decisions. This need affects how prepared they are to seek out information from advisors, as well as whether they value diverse opinions or only those broadly in line with their own (George 1980; Kaarbo and Hermann 1998; Burke and Greenstein 1989; Preston 2001; Hermann et al. 2001).
US presidents scoring high in cognitive complexity (for example, with a high need for information) prefer more open advisory systems in comparison to those who score low (Preston 2001). Furthermore, high complexity leaders will typically be more sensitive to external policy contexts and the multiple policy perspectives that may exist on a particular issue. In the course of policy deliberations, they actively seek out information and encourage the presentation by advisors of alternative views and policy options (George 1980). They exhibit a preparedness to think about future policy contingencies, and to consider the views and reactions of other policy actors. They are not prone to deploy or accept simplistic analogies, ‘black-and-white’ problems or stereotyped representations of critics and opponents.
However, high complexity leaders with their emphasis upon information search and detailed policy debate, are far less decisive and require comparatively more time before being able to take crucial decisions. Such leadership traits may not always be ideal under crisis circumstances when time is at a premium. Presidents coded as low in complexity do not engage in wide-ranging information searches; they rely on inner circles and trust their policy instincts. All things being equal, they have less trouble in making snap decisions under crisis conditions.
Differences in leader sensitivity to context can have important consequences for crisis management and blame attribution. For example, under normal decision-making circumstances, high complexity leaders who require time for information gathering and deliberation are likely to produce more considered, high quality decisions. During and after a crisis, however, they are politically vulnerable to blame from a public and media who expect swift, decisive interventions. In addition, particularly in the case of disasters and catastrophes, high societal costs such as death, injury, disease and critical infrastructure breakdowns provide political opponents with the ammunition to attack ‘ineffective’ leadership.
In contrast, we would expect low complexity leaders to react (in some form or another) much quicker to a crisis than their high complexity counterparts and to more rapidly develop a ‘frame’ of the scale and significance of the crisis (as well as the type of response that is needed), in a manner consistent with their pre-existing personal/political beliefs. This can be construed as the pinnacle of crisis leadership – the true decider – but it may also be perceived, with or without the benefit of hindsight, as ‘shooting from the hip’ or even as reckless carelessness. These leaders walk a fine line between heroism and scorn.
Table 1 outlines how the characteristics of leaders leave them more or less vulnerable to pressures of accountability and blaming. We surmise that leaders' operating styles and advisory arrangements leave them vulnerable to certain kinds of malfunctions or problems that may later come ‘home to roost' during the blame games after a crisis. It is important to note that there are no prima facie empirical reasons to presuppose that particular blame management strategies themselves are limited to any given leadership style type. After all, when confronted with crisis or scandal, presidents with very different leadership styles such as Nixon (on Watergate), Clinton (on Lewinsky) and Bush (on Iraq and Katrina) all set out initially to stonewall and obstruct, refusing to co-operate with Inquiries.
Table 1. Leadership style, crisis behaviour and blame implications
| || ||Need for control and personal involvement|
|Leader sensitivity to context||High||Seen as more ‘hands-on’ and engaged in handling crisis (little delegation to staff)||Seen as more ‘detached and uninvolved’ in handling crisis (substantial delegation to staff)|
| || ||Seen as more ‘competent’ due to limited visible bureaupolitical conflict||Seen as less ‘competent’ due to visible bureaupolitical conflict and slow decision process|
| || ||Seen as more ‘responsive’ to the situation due to willingness to consider alternative viewpoints, broad search for feedback, and emphasis on expertise over loyalty in staff||Seen as more ‘responsive’ to the situation due to willingness to consider alternative viewpoints, broad search for feedback, and emphasis on expertise over loyalty in staff|
| || ||Seen as ‘slow or tentative’ in response to situation due to high need and broad search for information when making decisions||Seen as ‘slow or tentative’ in response to situation due to high need and broad search for information when making decisions|
| || ||Mixed vulnerability when crisis has a rapid onset (‘fast-burning’ or ‘long-shadow’ crises). Less vulnerable due to high personal engagement. More vulnerable due to slow decision process and high need for information||High vulnerability to rapid-onset crises (‘fast-burning’ or ‘long-shadow’ crises) due to limited personal engagement, delegation, and slow decision process resulting from high information needs|
| || ||Low vulnerability to slow-building crises (like ‘cathartic’ or ‘slow-burning’), especially if situation complex and characterized by substantial ambiguity||Low vulnerability to slow-building crises (like ‘cathartic’ or ‘slow-burning’), especially if situation complex and characterized by substantial ambiguity|
| ||Low||Seen as more ‘hands-on’ and engaged in handling crisis (moderate delegation to staff)||Seen as ‘detached and uninvolved’ in handling crisis (substantial delegation to staff)|
| || ||Seen as moderately ‘competent’ due to rapid, decisive decision style, but visible bureaupolitical conflict||Seen as ‘incompetent’ due to highly visible bureaucratic infighting and conflict over policy, plus limited personal engagement which slows down decision making.|
| || ||Seen as more ‘unresponsive’ to the situation due to unwillingness to consider alternative viewpoints, limited search for feedback, and emphasis on loyalty over expertise in staff||Seen as more ‘unresponsive’ to the situation due to unwillingness to consider alternative viewpoints, limited search for feedback, and emphasis on loyalty over expertise in staff|
| || ||Seen as ‘more decisive’ in response to situation due to low need for information when making decisions||Seen as ‘generally decisive’ in response to situation due to low need for information when making decisions, but limited personal engagement results in ‘reactive’ style|
| || ||Mixed vulnerability when crisis has a rapid onset (‘fast-burning’ or ‘long-shadow’ crises). Less vulnerable due to high personal engagement. More vulnerable due to general inattentiveness to policy environment increases likelihood they will be caught unawares or unprepared||High vulnerability to crisis with rapid onset (‘fast-burning’ or ‘long-shadow’ crises) due to low need for personal engagement. If situation has low ambiguity, may respond well. However, if ambiguous, low sensitivity to context often leads to inappropriate policy responses|
| || ||High vulnerability to slow-building crises (like ‘cathartic’ or ‘slow-burning’), especially if complex and characterized by substantial ambiguity due to insensitivity to context||Highly vulnerability to slowly developing crises (like ‘cathartic’ or ‘slow-burning) due to general inattentiveness to policy environment increases likelihood they will be caught unawares or unprepared|
We may infer from table 1, however, that different types of leaders have different degrees of susceptibility to particular kinds of blame attribution in the wake of crises. This is because their preferred leadership styles have different strengths and weaknesses associated with them and these are often widely known and debated prior to the occurrence of a crises and are an obvious focal point for media and expert commentary. Different types of leaders are also likely to face different kinds of blame management challenges in the wake of a crisis. For example, leaders emphasizing loyalty over expertise are more likely to face criticism with regard to their use of purely political operators and allies in posts that require considerable administrative skills. That is the type of blame game ‘problem’ that a leader emphasizing expertise over loyalty likely would not face.
Likewise, leaders widely seen as having a controlling style may find it impossible to successfully deny personal knowledge and responsibility for controversial acts, as President Reagan did in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal. Paradoxically, Reagan's often ridiculed reputation for having an extremely ‘hands-off’ style quite possibly saved him from the scathing findings of the Tower Commission, since it made his key defence line – I did not know what exactly was being done in my name – sound rather plausible. And so Oliver North and John Poindexter took the fall, and Reagan's popularity quickly rebounded after the crisis subsided (Schudson 1990).
In sum, this framework suggests that leadership styles leave them more, or less, vulnerable to blame attribution during post-crisis scrutiny. But we do not know how particular patterns of blame attribution and blame management are associated with leaders with specific placements in the 2x2 leadership style space. This requires detailed empirical analysis of leadership styles and blame attribution. In the section that follows, we conduct a preliminary plausibility probe of this framework.
The sources of data for this case must, of necessity, rely upon journalistic accounts and congressional testimonies of participants. Obviously, there is the potential for bias in such data and it is undoubtedly not a complete record of the decision processes within the Bush administration surrounding Katrina. However, these still represent (in the absence of official records which become available after 30 years and publication of participant memoirs) the best available data on the case at present and every effort has been made to find multiple corroboration of accounts described in this case study.
The leadership style of President George W. Bush
President George W. Bush employed a very distinct leadership style. In a population of over 250 world leaders scored on Margaret Hermann's (1980a, b, 1983, 1984, 2003) Leader Trait Assessment scale, President Bush ranked relatively low on ‘need for power’ and ‘general sensitivity to context' (Preston and Hermann 2004). President Bush believes ‘one must act from convictions' and has publicly stated that ‘I am not going to negotiate with myself’ (Hargrove 2007, p. 229). As a Harvard Business School graduate, he combined a business executive style with a strong executive team. After listening to the arguments, the President decided. Public opinion simply did not enter into the equation (Hargrove 2007), as Bush himself emphatically re-iterated in early auto-retrospectives on his presidency during his final months in office.
President Bush's leadership style thus approximates an ideal type in table 1. His actions during and after Katrina are fully in line with this ideal type, which would suggest hands-off crisis management, a pro forma acceptance of responsibility, strong loyalty to subordinates, and a post-event conviction that the way it was handled did not require second guessing. This is neither an inherently bad (or good) way of managing a crisis. But this style does not work well for leaders who find themselves in a vulnerable position. It makes them look detached from reality, secretive and rigid. The lack of symbolic gestures of contrition (derided by Bush as ‘pandering to public opinion’) leaves a president with this leadership style wide open for attack.
In the summer of 2005, the Bush administration suffered from a general perception of declining presidential performance. By the time Katrina hit – and as opposed to the time of the 9/11 crisis – Bush had faced multiple ‘accountability episodes' that had begun to sap his credibility with the public. These included the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq; the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; allegations of misuse of intelligence to justify the war; and investigations of senior White House aides Scooter Libby and Karl Rove. This series of political controversies was accompanied by a steady decline in approval ratings (Bowman 2008). As a result, the Administration's response to Katrina would not be judged in isolation, but within the context of an overall negative political climate. This greatly complicated the Administration's efforts to formulate and ‘sell’ a winning frame.
President Bush's inner circle of advisers and his political appointees were predominantly comprised of ‘like-minded’ individuals whose personal loyalty was often considered more important than professional qualifications or expertise (Preston 2001; Mann 2004; Moens 2004; Tumulty et al. 2005; McClellan 2008). For leaders such as Bush, the emphasis on loyalty over expertise works both ways. In the face of intense media and public scrutiny, they are less inclined to breach their own principles and sacrifice loyal advisors for the sake of political expediency.
The closed nature of Bush's advisory system created hurdles for dissonant views. The consequence was a reduction in the ability to actively or accurately monitor the policy and political environments for feedback or relevant information (Allen 2005). Negative feedback or warnings coming from sources outside the Administration were less likely to be heard. President Bush's leadership style facilitated policies that were driven more by idiosyncratic factors or ideological beliefs than a monitoring of the existing political context. It also increased vulnerability to blame in the face of adversity.
This pre-existing political context would prove critical. President Bush did not enter the post-disaster phase with a clean slate politically speaking. Instead of a situation where blame can be relatively easily deflected, his slate made him a political magnet attracting blame. The pre-existing political context meant the Bush Administration could ill afford to appear unprepared, ineffectual, or purposefully misleading over Katrina. Yet, President Bush's leadership style did exactly that. It significantly influenced the character of the Administration's crisis management response, which, in turn, made it even more vulnerable to the blame game that followed immediately in Katrina's aftermath.
President Bush's leadership style during the first days after Katrina made landfall reinforced the perception of a leader out of touch with reality. The optimistic reactions by Bush and White House spokesmen about the federal response and the situation on the ground in New Orleans were soon refuted by media coverage of the situation and rescue workers on the scene (Stevenson 2005; Thomas 2005). The President's refusal to visit New Orleans – he preferred to fly over the stricken area – and his willingness to visit Senator Trent Lott in Mississippi were widely considered as insensitive. Detractors portrayed the President as being either out-of-touch with events (at best) or downright duplicitous (at worst) – neither of which judgement helped the Administration deflect blame.
Past decisions now came to haunt Bush's administration since they were suddenly reinterpreted in a new and rather unforgiving light. The deployment of Louisiana's National Guard to Iraq meant the state was short-handed in its response to the storm and this helped critics to link the response failure to the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. The Bush Administration had substantially cut the Army Corps of Engineers budgets for levee repairs and improvements around New Orleans in the years preceding Katrina (despite repeated warnings about the threat posed by major storms) by more than half, which created a direct causal relation between Bush and Katrina (Blumenthal 2005; Ripley 2005).
Bush's style of substantial delegation to subordinates, limited active involvement, and emphasis upon loyalty over expertise in appointments, served to pre-set the roles of many of the policy actors prior to Katrina – actors (such as FEMA director Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff) whose performances would later be criticized. Subsequent media investigations into the backgrounds of Bush political appointees opened up the Administration to accusations of cronyism and placing officials (such as Brown) into posts for which they were not qualified (Tumulty et al. 2005). Such charges were especially damaging, given the importance (and failure) of federal emergency managers in the response to a disaster of this magnitude.
The unremitting public pressure led Bush to quickly acknowledge, during a press conference on 13 September, that 'to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility’ (Bumiller and Stevenson 2005). While Bush accepted responsibility, a counterattack from the White House questioned the political motives of opponents. Press Secretary McClelland used the term ‘blame game’ 15 times over the course of just two White House press briefings when confronted with criticism of the Administration's response (Krugman 2005).
Rather than moving on quickly, President Bush prioritized the reconstruction of New Orleans and the wider Gulf area on his policy agenda. This may be interpreted as a cynical effort to correct some of the mistakes his administration had made. It is, however, also fully consistent with President Bush's leadership style, which is to pursue ‘what should be done’ as a matter of principle. While the president refused to reform DHS and FEMA (the responsible agents for failure according to many), he consistently supported money flowing down south, long after other priorities had begun to dominate the national attention cycle. Post-Katrina, FEMA alone has spent almost $7 billion, comprising $1.47 billion for hazard mitigation and $6.1 billion in individual assistance.