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Ob Personal Case - Hurricane Katrina

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Biloxi, MS lay in ruins after Hurricane Katrina dissipated in late August of 2005. The landscape of the Gulf Coast region was forever changed, physically and emotionally. For LT Lamar Sales and his team, the humbling experience of helping residents recover afterwards left an indelible mark. This experience became the crucible that forged his leadership skills and ability to manage a cohesive group for a unified cause.

As the leader of an Air Force Logistics Rapid Recovery Team, LT Sales was ordered to get his team from Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, TX to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS and assess the damage and assist in preparing the base to receive supplies in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The most rewarding thing LT Sales and his unit did was remove drywall damaged by floodwaters. In the late August heat and humidity, mold would grow at a rapid rate, which would cover the interior of the house making recovery extremely difficult. This document will showcase examples of LT Sales’ leadership, the group dynamics of his team and the outcome of his actions, in the absence of orders from his senior leadership.

Having received his commission after graduating from the Citadel, LT Sales displayed the skills of being a leader, albeit raw. He was educated on storied military tacticians and learned about their leadership in times of combat. However nothing would prepare him for Hurricane Katrina. According to McClelland, a tangible way to measure this need for Achievement (n Ach)[1] is able to identify people who set challenges for themselves, or tasks that make them stretch themselves. Those with high n Ach scores spend their time thinking about doing things better. Upon receiving orders, LT Sales realized his role was greater than just surveying an Air Force Base in the aftermath of a devastating storm. He had seen the images of homes and cars floating away in the floodwaters. He heard the cries of survivors missing loved ones over the news broadcasts.  Instinctually, his situational n Ach was preparing him to assemble a team best suited for the situation. Furthermore, he wanted to ensure his team was mentally prepared for the recovery effort. He began to play out scenarios and created plans his team would follow in the case of rescuing survivors, property recovery and creating shelters.

Typically, a high n Ach score is relative to finding a new job or a desire to climb the corporate ladder.  During the recovery efforts of Katrina, many volunteers and first responders developed a different version of n Ach[2], which had the same attributes, but for selfless acts to assist others. Motivated by a desire to assist survivors, every volunteer had the same goal and instincts. This version of n Ach was derived from the situation and knowing that they were the closest aid, LT Sales and his unit stepped into action. Within the first few days in Biloxi, he helped residents find loved ones and either at shelters or make shift mortuaries. The next step was to help those with a desire to rebuild. For this, he would need his entire team.

        When LT Sales was deployed to Biloxi, his team was comprised of two mechanics, skilled in all types of vehicle repair, two medics, equally skilled in various medical conditions, as well as three Airmen who had backgrounds in construction and skilled labor. Typically, the team will bring provisions based on the mission. This mission proved especially difficult to kit due to the lack of intelligence in the aftermath of Katrina. Prior to departing for Biloxi, the team had to complete their load out. Do they load their two vehicles with more medical supplies, or with more tools? The Medics wanted to bring enough supplies to setup a mobile operating room, defibrillator, mobile ultrasound and all. The Mechanics wanted enough tools to rebuild engines and machinery. The experienced team knew they couldn’t bring everything and they all recognized they were stronger as a team than as individuals, a trait of Group Assets, according to Maier[3]. The team resolved this by bringing the absolute necessary tools to survive as a team, and forage for any supplies once they arrived into Biloxi.

A liability[4] of group decision-making arose on the third day of the recovery effort, when the team had established their home base at Keesler. A medic wanted to take one of the vehicles to the local hospital to recover medical supplies. They were preparing to venture into the local communities and she wanted to be prepared to set broken bones or to treat any illnesses that may have been caused by the floodwaters. LT Sales was hesitant to let her venture out on her own but relented when an Airman said he would accompany her to the hospital. Operating on three days of little rest, the unit was leaderless at the moment and allowed a dominant individual to capture more than her share of influence.

Three hours later, the medic and mechanic returned empty handed. The hospital’s pharmacy was located on the first floor and basement, which was flooded. Frustrated, the medic complained they should have packed more supplies than tools. Realizing the onset of conflict, LT Sales gathered the team and leveraged his positional power and ordered is team to get rest while he sought out orders and scavenged splints and bandages from a base shelter.

Referring to the Continuum of Leadership Behavior[5], LT Sales skillfully transitions along the various points in the continuum based on the situation, enabling his subordinates to easily apply their own skills, versus taking orders, which in the military, is an accustomed form of leadership. However, LT Sales was keenly aware of the special traits his team possessed, and in order to maximize them, he knew he had to play to their strengths. From a chronological perspective, the drive to Keesler, LT Sales was on the extreme side of Boss-centered leadership[6]. There was no need for the team to exhibit their skills, their focus was getting to Biloxi as quickly as possible. Even when they arrived at Keesler, LT Sales knew the first task was to have his team assess the situation, based on their unique skills. At that point, he enabled his subordinates to make decision on their own: Medics assessing the condition of survivors at Keesler, while the mechanics set about the motor pool, determining the condition of vehicles needed for recovery. When they ventured into the local communities to administer aid, his leadership became a hybrid of Boss-centered and subordinate centered leadership[7]. When they surveyed the homes and health of the residents, the Medics worked alongside the unit to help. Once that was established, a triage area was setup where the Medics could tend to the injured. The prioritization of tasks was directed from LT Sales and that enabled the group to work efficiently.

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