Servant Leadership and Hurricane Katrina

During Hurricane Katrina, servant leadership was misused and, in many instances, abandoned due to legality and political obstacles that impeded services. Likewise, leaders failed to be effective and influence change at local, state, and federal levels thus refusing to collaborate for the betterment of a greater cause.

Defining Servant Leadership

What is Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is the process of setting asides one’s self for the welfare of others (Spears, 1998). Built upon the constructs of ethical behaviors and the welfare of others, servant leadership allows a leader to distance themselves from power, influence and their position in order to focus on the improvement and development of others and the organization (Spears, 1998).

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Within servant leadership there exist ten principles which, when practiced across a full spectrum, truly define a leader. These principles are as follow: listening, healing, empathy, awareness, conceptualization, persuasion, foresight, commitment to growth of others, stewardship, an building community (Spears, 1998). When a leader practices servant leadership, the apply these principles in order to help others grow while providing them purpose, direction, and motivation (Spears, 1998). The focus is placed on people and the overall welfare of the community, rather than on the personal goals or motives of the leader. While some may argue that servant leadership has religious ties, may demean the authority of the leader, or may give the impression that a leader is weak, when properly utilized, servant leadership can bring a community together, especially in times of need, and can empower other leaders to rise from the proverbial darkness.

Impact to Society

From a business or political perspective, servant leadership can be linked to public relations and corporate responsibility. Together, both functions ensure that leaders and their organizations are providing for the needs of those whom they serve (Kim, 2014). When an organization and its leaders truly sets aside self-serving motives, they can sincerely help communities improve (Kim, 2014). Through various activities, communal investment, and humanitarian efforts, organizations can have a profound impact on the economic, social and environmental panorama of society at large (Kim, 2014). By practicing the principles of servant leadership, expanding their volunteer efforts, and through charitable donations, many failing towns have evolved into prosperous communities full of life (Asgary & Li, 2016). While the direct actions of a leader at a strategic or organizational level may go unseen, their stewardship and leadership style can manifest through the development of community projects, contributions to educational programs, cultural activities, equal employment opportunities, environmental concerns, energy conservation, voluntarism, and social investments (Asgary & Li, 2016). All these actions have a direct impact to the community and can create a culture where others replicate their desire to serve and become stewards of the community.

Servant Leadership During Tribulation

Leading without having to face adversity is a false pretense. As Robert Dees repeatedly emphasized, leadership is a calling that is full of tribulations (Dees, 2013). Tribulations do not always manifest as a single, explosive event as Hurricane Katrina. More often than naught, they emanate as a ripple that slowly builds as it spreads its waves of destruction (Dees, 2013). Accidents and unexpected misfortunes will undoubtedly occur, regardless of how skillful a leader may be (Dees, 2013). These predicaments define the true character of a leader and uncover their individual strengths and weaknesses (Dees, 2013). How well a resilient leader performs in the face of adversity can solidify their relationship with their followers and build trust and confidence (Dees, 2013). They can utilize these moments to learn, adapt, and grow by turning them into teaching experiences rather than accepting defeat (Dees, 2013). This ties directly to principles such as empathy, foresight, commitment to growth, and others that demonstrate servant leadership.

Servant Leadership Misused and Forgotten

Failures at the Local Level

During and after Hurricane Katrina, local leaders and authorities made small attempts to provide much needed support but soon, as more serious problems and obstacles arose, they abandoned their efforts. As Scott Tkacz points out, over 250 personnel from the New Orleans Police Department deserted their posts and turned away from the duties and responsibilities (2006). Rather than stand as stewards of the community, many abandoned any hint of servant leadership and resorted to looting and other actions that defaced the principles of servant leadership. Without any truly effective law enforcement, numerous safety threats interrupted any attempts for a response. Local civilians resorted to illegal activities that overshadowed the devastation (Tkacz, 2006). In many instances, confrontation and the need to protect self, family, and personal property turned to violence. Soon, local leaders complete abolished their roles as servant leaders and made their own personal safety a priority while ignoring the plea of others (Tkacz, 2006).

Failures at the State Level

Complicated by the failures at the local levels, State officials also turned away from providing support, influencing others, assisting with healing, and seemed to overlook any ethical choices or place the welfare of others first. Just two days after the hurricane, the Mayor put a halt to search and rescue efforts (Tkacz, 2006). Without the support of the police, many state support agencies refused to move forward (Tkacz, 2006). This led to hospitals needing to close and placed a strain on the ability to obtain medical aid, food, water, and other necessities for the more than 20,000 evacuees seeking shelter and aid at the New Orleans Convention Center and the thousands more stranded across the State (Tkacz, 2006).

Failures at the Federal Level

Taking the blunt of the blame for lack of support and servant leaderships, Federals leaders allowed personal pride, a drive for power, and other negativities cloud their decision-making process and impede service and stewardship. Failing to employ any foresights, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice had done very little planning and well after landfall, remained locked in a battle over who would assume the lead (Tkacz, 2006). Also locked in the “tug-of-war” over control, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Health and Human Services, although making attempts to activate the federal emergency health capabilities, were also slowed by leaders that could not set aside pride and control to live up to the principles of servant leadership (Tkacz, 2006).

Probably considered the greatest point of failure was the rift between Governor Blanco and President Bush. Allowing political differences, further complicated by conflicting legislation, support from the National Guard and other Military assets was drastically delayed (Tkacz, 2006). Their self-centered debates caused weeks of delays in all forms of federal aid and recovery efforts.

Obstacles of Servant Leadership

The cornerstone of servant leadership is the motive behind a leaders’ purpose to lead: his or her motives for doing what they do (Dees, 2013). From a Christian perspective, selflessness is closely linked to goodwill. What makes a leader’s will, or motive, good is that it is motivated by their human desires to selflessly serve others. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant suggested that an individual’s motive is positive when they are driven by the desire to do their duty and not any other egoistical aims (Pande, 2013).

During and after Hurricane Katrina, many leaders failed to represent the true virtue and meaning of their calling. Rather than move towards selflessness and put away the desires of their head and focus on a nobler cause found within their heart, they battled for control, political prestige, and power (Dees, 2013). These motives kept them from demonstrating integrity and courage which, when combined with wisdom and divine inspiration, results in pure selflessness driven by goodness and godliness (Dees, 2013).


During Hurricane Katrina, servant leadership was misuse and, in many instances, abandoned due to legality and political obstacles that impeded services. Likewise, leaders failed to be effective and influence change at local, state, and federal levels thus refusing to collaborate for the betterment of a greater cause.


  1. Asgary, N., & Li, G. (2016). Corporate social responsibility: Its economic impact and link to the bullwhip effect. Journal of Business Ethics, 135, 665-681.
  2. Dees, R. F. (2013). Resilient Leaders. San Diego, CA: Creative Team Publishing.
  3. Kim, Y. (2014, December). Strategic communication of corporate social responsibility (CSR): Effects of stated motives and corporate reputation on stakeholder responses. Public Relations Review, 40(5), 838-840.
  4. Pande, N. (2013, March). Kartavya: Understanding selfless acts. Psychology Developing Societies, 25, 109-132.
  5. Spears, L. C. (1998). Insight on leadership: Service, stewardship, spirit and servant-leadership. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.
  6. Tkacz, S. R. (2006). In Katrina’s wake: Rethinking the military’s role in domestic emergencies. William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 15, 301-334.

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Servant Leadership and Hurricane Katrina. (2021, Dec 16). Retrieved from