flood waters that struck the Ninth Ward after Hurricane
Katrina washed many houses, like this one, from their
foundations. Only the front porch remains.
blocks of leadership
Big Easy is anything but for the Kellogg students who took
on the leadership challenge of helping New Orleans rebuild
after Hurricane Katrina
bless you and all the help you're providing."
reconstruction effort formed part of a weeklong Kellogg
Leadership Expedition (KLE) in March that brought a dozen
Kellogg students, along with some friends and spouses, to
New Orleans for an atypical spring break. We weren't hitting
the Bourbon Street bars down in the French Quarter; instead,
we were hitting nails, hauling ladders and removing debris
to do our part and help rebuild a community still recovering
from a natural disaster whose estimated damage costs topped
to know a Category 3 storm
by the Kellogg School's Business Leadership Club (BLC), our
excursion was one of three experiential learning initiatives
this spring designed to enhance students' leadership abilities
by putting our hands, hearts and minds to work. The goal was
to make a difference for others while gaining valuable insights
about ourselves as we refined our decision-making skills.
our first day in New Orleans we learned about the challenges
that Katrina presented to local leaders, such as Allison
Plyer '90. The Kellogg graduate told how she has used
her MBA to advance the mission of the Greater New Orleans
Community Data Center (GNOCDC), serving as its deputy director.
The center, founded in 1997, builds data sources to support
planning throughout the Gulf Coast. Plyer and her team used
these tools to monitor the region's social and economic health
before the storm, something they continue to do. For example,
they track population by proxies like school enrollment and
active postal addresses, while fiscal and economic conditions
are examined through sales tax collection, unemployment rates
and cargo activity at the city's port. The team follows overall
recovery by comparing pre-storm data to post-storm numbers.
A major challenge, however, was to continue the center's operation
at a time when everything fell apart: In Louisiana alone the
Category 3 storm, with sustained winds up to 130 m.p.h., caused
more than 1,500 casualties and left 200,000 residents homeless.1
related how the GNOCDC quickly established its employees and
servers remotely after the storm, while managing a record
number of inquiries — 80,000 hits per month for their
Web site — from around the world. "Then in January
'06 people came out of shock," Plyer said. "They
realized this was not about shelter beds for a few nights."
Since then, the pace has hardly slowed. In collaboration with
the Brookings Institution, the GNOCDC published a report in
January 2007 that assessed the recovery.2
in New Orleans for the past 10 years, Plyer has grown passionate
about her adopted city. This was evident despite the grim
statistics she presented to us: Repopulation has diminished
and only 19 percent of public buses are operating. Of the
top five jobs facing labor shortages, three require recovery-related
skills, like architecture and engineering. But not everything
is dismal. Private school enrollment has reached 83 percent
of pre-Katrina levels and the number of Louisiana families
living in FEMA trailers decreased by 19 percent between last
September and December. Cargo and bulk cargo activity in the
port reached 90 and 95 percent of 2004 levels, respectively.3
"What keeps me sane is that I do this work," Plyer
of the Kellogg Leadership Expedition to New Orleans take
a break on the steps of the house they built with Habitat
for Humanity. The site leader, Danny Stephen, is at right
in yellow. In addition to this excursion, two teams of
Kellogg students traveled to Patagonia in Chile and the
San Rafael Swell area of Utah.
meeting with Plyer was invaluable preparation for our next
appointment, with Angelo DeNisi, dean of the A. B. Freeman
School of Business at Tulane University. He shared an emotionally
charged account of how the storm affected his school and challenged
had just begun his tenure before Katrina hit; after the storm,
the school's administration was faced with conditions unimaginable
even for seasoned executives. Students arrived on campus at
the end of August but, as a precaution, were sent home immediately.
"Everybody evacuated with the thought that they would
be gone for three days," DeNisi said. "Hurricanes
come here. Everybody knows what happens: You take three days
of clothes with you or else stay here."
the storm did pass relatively quickly, DeNisi and other evacuees
watched from out of town as news reports revealed that over
half of New Orleans was under water. It soon became clear
that the city was uninhabitable — a stunning fact that
presented a host of serious implications, one of which meant
that Tulane was closed and classes were cancelled.
administration moved to Houston and looked to Tulane president
Scott Cowen for guidance. "When I think of the role that
leadership played in this, I think of Scott Cowen," DeNisi
said. "He came into that first meeting we had and said,
'This university will reopen on Jan. 16. There's no question,
no debate, and what we do now is figure out how we open on
Jan. 16.'" DeNisi said it was only later that Cowen revealed
that he had doubted whether Tulane would rebound, yet the
chief executive never wavered in his public optimism, and
this confidence strengthened his team. "Without that,
I don't know if we would have ever reopened," DeNisi
admitted. To meet that goal, though, Cowen had to make tough
decisions, including eliminating 10 percent of the faculty,
along with five undergraduate programs and eight sports programs.
participant Brian Thome '08 heard this lesson loud
and clear: "I learned that I need to be more decisive
in a leadership position. While it is good to solicit feedback
and seek consensus, sometimes the leader just has to make
a decision and be willing to live with the consequences."
leaving Tulane, our team spent the afternoon aboard a coach
bus with guide Carol Stauder. This was not the lighthearted
city tour of most vacations. Stauder's route took us along
the course that Katrina followed and provided a glimpse into
the devastation that still remains.
call this the good-news/bad-news tour," the longtime
Louisiana resident said. "The good news is you take a
look at the French Quarter and you wouldn't know that Katrina
hit. The bad news is that the rest of the city, the part where
everybody lives, is still struggling to come back."
three hours we drove past boarded up, abandoned houses. Nearly
all were defaced by the high-water marks that reminded everyone
of how serious the flooding was. While driving through the
Ninth Ward, we came to a neighborhood that was full of new
houses painted in brilliant colors. "Musician's Village,"
Stauder said, a neighborhood of 80 homes backed financially
by artists Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis. The bulk
of the Habitat for Humanity work was underway here. Houses
stood in various stages, some with families who had settled
in, others needing landscaping, and still more arising as
mere wood skeletons. At least there were children playing
in the street and residents standing on their finished stoops.
returned the next day to Musician's Village, where Zac Margolies,
construction manager for the Greater New Orleans Habitat chapter,
told us that most of the work was in the Upper Ninth Ward
and in Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes —
areas within a few miles of the French Quarter. Approximately
150 homes were under construction.
the top of a cargo container, Margolies explained the program:
"What we do is provide decent affordable housing to people
in need. They pay for only the cost of the materials and land
through an interest-free loan." In lieu of a down payment,
residents put in 350 hours of sweat equity, working on their
neighbors' houses and their own. "They build the community
that way," Margolies said. The housing is affordable
because volunteers provide free labor. "We could not
build these houses without volunteers like you," he told
then assigned us to our site manager, Danny Stephen. We followed
Stephen to the Baker's home in St. Bernard Parish, east of
City Park. Katrina had decimated the area, with the storm's
eye passing over part of the parish and leaving up to 12 feet
of standing water. The Bakers lived opposite a large, partially
demolished housing project that we had passed during the previous
day's tour. Joy Baker said they chose to stay and help restore
their neighborhood, dedication that found them living for
more than two years in a trailer adjacent to their new home.
morning, Stephen would explain the day's projects. We would
divide into teams and set to work. Throughout the week, we
raised roof trusses, sheathed the roof, installed windows,
wrapped the house in waterproofing material and painted trim.
Even less glamorous jobs, like holding someone's ladder, were
as necessary as using a power saw to cut wood or hammer nails
on the roof. Through these tasks we learned about each other
and how to pull together as a team for a common goal.
McDonough '09 said he learned the importance of patience
when leading a team. "I think Danny's leadership allowed
everyone to accomplish as much as possible given our experience
levels," he said. McDonough himself was a natural leader
on the site, having done some prior construction work and
taken another Kellogg service trip to New Orleans in 2007.
He said the most challenging aspect of our team's visit was
learning and implementing new skills quickly. Each of us wanted
to do as much as we could for the Bakers in the four days
we had there.
excursion "provided an opportunity to develop relationships
quickly and accomplish a lot with people of all experience
levels," McDonough added. "I enjoyed having the
chance to help."
home the lessons
other Kellogg Leadership Expeditions, ours provided a context
to develop as socially responsible leaders. Each trip offered
time for discussion and reflection. "The goal is to help
you develop your personal leadership style, build self-awareness
and emotional intelligence, make decisions in the face of
uncertainty and internalize concepts taught in the classroom,"
said Meredith Mason '08, vice president of Leadership
Expeditions for the BLC.
is a major focus at the Kellogg School, where Associate Professor
of Management and Organizations Michelle
Buck is director of leadership initiatives. In this role,
she challenges students to get out of their comfort zones.
"It is common to think of leadership as leading other
people, but a strong foundation of leadership is self-reflection,"
Buck points out. "If you don't know yourself, your strengths
and your weaknesses, how can you be an effective leader?"
Buck attended last year's expedition to Patagonia and said
these trips are an extraordinary occasion for participants
to place themselves in extreme situations and to explore each
others' leadership styles.
March 30, our team had returned to Chicago with memories of
the Southern food and hospitality we enjoyed in New Orleans,
but carrying the sobering images of Katrina's devastation.
We compared notes with the Kellogg groups that traveled to
Chile and Utah, trading stories about how leadership came
alive during each trip. We met with Senior Associate Dean
Besanko, with whom we exchanged leadership lessons. He
believes leadership entails persuading others to pursue a
common, mutually beneficial goal. Our team's goal was completing
as much of the Baker's house as we could, and we saw this
objective best accomplished when we deferred to each other's
hard to imagine a leader emerging who didn't have some specialized
knowledge," Besanko told us. At Kellogg, KLE participants
have been making an investment in themselves by pursuing an
MBA program that offers both breadth and depth of knowledge.
"It cannot be denied that intellectual depth is a resource
that leaders bring to the table," Besanko said.
of our New Orleans experiences, each member of our team brought
back new perspectives, new friends and new leadership skills.
I also brought back a few strands of those beads: Shiny purple,
they represent for me the pride that New Orleans residents
have for their city's history and rebirth. The baubles hang
in my closet where they remind me of the modest difference
I made on the city, but more importantly the impact it had
Louisiana Hurricane Impact Atlas Report, Fall 2005
The data is released quarterly and available at gnocdc.org.
Culled from The New Orleans Index, Jan. 15, 2008