Meta-Leadership in Mega Disasters – A Case Study of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour during Hurricane Katrina

– Executive Summary –

In April 2005, I returned from a year in Baghdad and was appointed the Director of Military Support for the Mississippi National Guard. I was responsible for the planning, coordinating and deploying of National Guard troops in support of a gubernatorial call-out in Mississippi. These call-outs include terrorist events, natural disasters, and man-made disasters.

Over the course of the next six years, Mississippi was struck by numerous disasters. Hurricane Katrina, an Enhanced Fujita (EF) 4 tornado in 2010, Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill throughout the summer of 2010, two EF-5 tornados in 2011, and the Mississippi River Flood in summer 2011 still represent some of the most significant disasters to hit our nation. In each of these disasters, the Mississippi National Guard was activated to assist first responders in response, relief, and recovery efforts. As a Guardsman, I had the opportunity to work for and observe the leadership of Mississippi Governor Haley R. Barbour. Governor Barbour rose to the challenges of each of these monumental catastrophes with leadership, intelligence, and confidence; the qualities needed to govern in times of crisis. As I began my journey to choose a topic for my thesis, I continually returned to the leadership acumen of the governor. I realized that there have been few examinations of leadership traits in elected officials during catastrophic disasters. In today’s political environment, voters tend to elect politicians based on their party’s platform or on the charisma of the leader. How many times have leaders been elected based on their well-defined leadership skills, especially in situations that were catastrophic in nature? When an event happens, the electorate and media expect the leader impacted by the event will know exactly how to react, develop a response plan, and lead the response plan.

Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster in terms of economic impact to ever strike the United States. To many Americans, Hurricane Katrina marks a low point in disaster response and recovery. Few have ever spoken about the many positive outcomes in the aftermath of a disaster that killed 1,833 Americans and caused over $108 billion in damages, roughly four times the damage wrought by Hurricane Andrew.

Hurricane Katrina struck in the early morning hours of August 29. For the next two months, I worked alongside thousands of National Guardsmen, active duty Soldiers, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, police officers, fire fighters, and everyday Americans responding to the greatest natural disaster in terms of economic impact in our nation’s history. The entire Gulf Coast was destroyed. Over 60,000 homes in the southern part of the state were destroyed, and 238 Mississippians perished in the storm.

Given the horrible conditions during the response and recovery phases, the leadership displayed by Governor Haley Barbour served as an example of what a leader must do during a catastrophic event. His actions and decisions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina clearly needed to be studied. However, this study needed to be more than simply a biography of a leader. Governor Barbour’s leadership style needed to be examined to determine if his methods can be taught.

There are dissenters who say that Governor Barbour’s actions and decisions during the response to Hurricane Katrina were politically motivated, and he was determined to help the wealthy at the expense of low income residents. His decision to allocate over $400 million to rebuilding the Port of Gulfport drew particular scrutiny. [1]  Opponents to this decision believed that the funding should have been directed to the construction of low-income housing and other programs to assist the poor. However, almost a decade after the storm, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has emerged more economically sound, with a greater population, higher student test scores, and a rebuilt infrastructure. Governor Barbour’s vision and experience as a seasoned politician clearly led to more good than bad decisions.

As I began the research for this project, I discovered the theory of meta-leadership. Meta-leaders are leaders whose scope of thinking, influence, and accomplishment extend far beyond their formal or expected bounds of authority. This leadership theory was developed by Harvard professors Leonard Marcus, Isaac Ashkenazi, Barry Dorn, and Joseph Henderson, who built it from elements of existing leadership models. [2]

As I read their work, I realized that this version of leadership nested with the leadership traits of Governor Barbour during the response and recovery phases of Hurricane Katrina. Since Marcus et al.’s concept of leadership lacked a case study that would epitomize their theory, I decided to develop a thesis using case study methodologies to the leadership theory known as meta-leadership. This is a single case study that examines the decisions made by Governor Barbour during Hurricane Katrina. The process to develop this case study was through direct interviews with the governor and from researching various articles, journals, government publications, and books about Katrina. It should be noted that this thesis only focuses on the response activities in Mississippi.

[1] Spencer S. Hsu, “Mississippi Groups Sue HUD, Objecting to Use of Katrina Aid for Port,” Washington Post, December 11, 2008, accessed November 03, 2014,

[2] Leonard J. Marcus, Barry C. Dorn, and Joseph M. Henderson, “The Five Dimensions of Meta-Leadership,” in National Preparedness Initiative, Cambridge, MA: Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, 2008),, 1.

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