Darkness...No Match for Leadership: Lessons from the Austin Bombings

Darkness...No Match for Leadership: Lessons from the Austin Bombings

The Five Practices

"It's amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit."
 – John Wooden, UCLA Basketball Coach

Five explosions rocked Austin, Texas in March of this year. Sending fear and uncertainty across the region, these bombings resulted in two deaths and five injuries. They produced enough terror to set the entire city on edge. During the course of this bombing spree, over 500 agents from various state and federal agencies flooded into Austin to assist the Austin Police in finding the serial bomber. Through their collective efforts, the bomber was discovered and took his life as police moved in to end his reign of terror just three weeks after it began.

While the terror of the event and the ultimate suicide of the bomber made the big headlines, the humble hero of this story was Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley. During this time of uncertainty, Manley often spoke to the community via press briefings. He talked softly but confidently in order to calm fears while also cautioning Austin citizens to be aware of anything suspicious—whether activities or packages. He Inspired a Shared Vision as he reminded everyone of the values the Austin community shares: responsiveness, safety, community, and teamwork. And he spoke in ways that invited and empowered the entire community to participate in finding the bomber—Enabling Others to Act. As a result, his department received thousands of calls from citizens offering tips and suggestions about suspicious activity.

After the bomber was neutralized, Interim Chief Brian Manley talked about how the teamwork between the community and the police department had enabled them to identify the offender and stop the bombings quickly. He Encouraged the Hearts of everyone as he took none of the credit himself and referred repeatedly to others who had stepped up to end this manhunt. As Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner often remind us, critical incidents are a natural part of every leader’s life. During these stressful periods, leaders often are challenged to improvise and make decisions on the “fly” while staying true to the mission and purpose of the end goal. Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley certainly fulfilled this role throughout this event. His critical decision to utilize over 500 local law enforcement officers and to engage the Austin community to help identify and, ultimately, stop the offender has been praised by all—from the governor’s office to local and county officials.

No organization wants to deal with a fatal event such as a bombing, not a private business nor a city police department. But, organizational life does produce challenges, changes and other stressful events that can have a shattering impact. Approaching these critical events, however, by identifying and working from a center core of shared values can help any organization—like the Austin City Police Department—respond collaboratively and effectively.

Ultimately, Chief Manley built trust and achieved the desired outcome in this horrific situation by Modeling the Way. The good news is that he was quickly promoted from Interim Chief to the full-time role after City officials saw his leadership shine in the way he put all of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® into action. Well done, Chief Manley!

Lawandra Smith, a 25-year veteran working in public sector organizations, is currently Leadership for Advance Management Specialist with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) where she delivers The Leadership Challenge workshops to middle and executive management across the state. A Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge®, she can be reached at Lawandra.smith@dfps.state.tx.us

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