The Impulse Toward Helping and the Organizational Roadblocks

As the response to Katrina is reviewed, a
huge paradox appears. On the one hand individuals and small groups, such as
local churches, immediately sprang into action and reached out to those in
distress. But response by government was cumbersome, at best, and virtually
paralyzed at worst. What’s to account for this discrepancy?

As humanitarian response to the hurricanes is scrutinized a huge paradox appears. Individuals responded instinctively to save others at risk to their own lives. The U.S. Coast Guard also performed heroically rescuing people from rooftops in New Orleans within a matter of hours. But those government entities mandated to respond were cumbersome, at best, and virtually paralyzed at worst.

The paradox is that individuals and small organized groups, namely local churches, immediately sprang into action and reached out to those in distress. I talked to a number of people in both Louisiana and Mississippi who were helped by non-governmental responders, many of whom were neighbors and others who were complete strangers.

FEMA has taken it on the chin for not being present and doing what, on the face of it, seemed obvious to everyone. Help. What’s to account for this discrepancy?

Columnist David Brooks says this institutional failure results from incompetency at high levels. He says a succession of events in the wider culture ranging from corrupt corporate leaders to abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to the total lack of postwar planning to the failure of intelligence to predict 9/11 or find weapons of mass destruction have shaken our confidence and contribute to low national morale.

I would put it more bluntly. Our institutions, especially our government, are failing us. They don’t reflect our highest aspirations or deepest yearnings.

When the best of our desires surface, we aspire to be a part of a group of people who make a difference in the world, a difference that makes life better. We yearn for connection with others in a community in which we feel accepted and affirmed. But we get a culture that emphasizes our fears and attempts to manipulate us into fulfilling individual needs while ignoring those of others. A culture of materialism requires emphasis on individualism. Community becomes secondary, at best. At worst, it gets left out altogether.

This changes the character of organizations as well. We get organizations that seem to be more concerned with self-perpetuation than serving the common good.
We get control freaks and self-aggrandizers in positions of leadership and we don’t get organizations that fulfill our highest aspirations.

It’s little wonder to me that in a time of crisis we saw both the most unselfish courage and a darker more ominous side of human behavior. It’s also little wonder that people are turning their backs to organizations that don’t listen to them and don’t appeal to their highest yearnings. The cynicism that is so pervasive today is fed by the turf battles that result from short-sighted leaders who don’t see beyond their own need to control. This fuels an anti-institutional attitude that weakens belief in all institutions. Skepticism about the organization is as strong toward religious denominations as it is toward government.

So the paradox between individual behavior and organizational response to the flooding in New Orleans, seen in this light, is not so puzzling. While officials battled over turf, people were drowning. The instinctively correct thing to do was attempt to save them. And that’s what many people took upon themselves to do.

Many institutions are drowning too. The flood in New Orleans didn’t help save them, it only highlighted how ineffectual they are when petty battles over turf and incompetent leadership get in the way of doing the right thing.

There is learning here that we need to consider and it goes far beyond the political positioning that places blame on the other side. This lesson is about character. It’s about what makes for good leadership. It’s about what we want our government and other institutions to be. We want to be led toward our highest ideals. We want leaders who listen and serve the good of all.

We want leadership that guides us toward our impluse to help. We don’t want organizations that act as roadblocks on that journey.

Join the conversation!

Post a reply in the form below.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image