By Steve Moran

I have waited for the rawness of the Uvalde disaster to subside, if that is possible, but I think there is a critical leadership learning lesson in how the school police chief behaved.

It seems clear additional lives of children were lost because of a lack of leadership, or more precisely, because of bad leadership. This means it didn’t have to be this way; there is some number of kids who would most likely still be alive today.

But instead, kids died.

Bare Bones

This article headline from CBS News says it best: “I Didn’t Know I Was in Charge.” He was the freaking chief of police for the school district. Not only were there kids shot who might have made it safely away, but there were also kids who slowly bled to death because the police chief fiddled. He waited more than an hour until another police agency, the Border Patrol, came in and broke the door down. By then it was way too late for all 18 of the kids.

And so … kids died.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

I went through several articles to find his “excuses” for not going in. Here is the list:

  • “I didn’t know I was in charge.”
  • “We were waiting for protective equipment.”
  • “I left my radios behind because I thought they might slow me down.”
  • “I couldn’t find the right key.”
  • “Don’t blame me for anything, because I didn’t issue any orders at all.”
  • “I called for assistance.”
  • “I’m not to blame.”
  • “The door was too strong to break down.”
  • “I did the best I could.”

And kids died.

The last one is the sorriest of all. I actually believe this to be true. I don’t for a moment believe he wanted any extra kids to die or for kids to bleed to death because of his lack of leadership. The problem is that in leadership, “I did the best I could” is ONLY A LEGITIMATE EXCUSE IF YOU HAVE DONE EVERYTHING REASONABLY IN YOUR POWER TO PREPARE FOR THE WORST CASE.

Are You Doing Things to Grow Your Leadership Strength?

I am sure he felt that because he was the chief, it was good enough. I am sure he never imagined a disaster like this would ever happen under his watch in his jurisdiction.

And kids died.

The question I want to ask you as a leader is this: Are you doing things to grow your leadership strength? Are you reading books, going to high-level leadership conferences, or listening to podcasts? Are you thinking about how to lead better?

Hint: I love senior living leadership conferences, but they are never going to give you the depth you need to lead through anything.

What Hasn’t Been Said — and Worst of All

I have had a lot of exposure to first responders (police, fire, paramedics), and nearly every one of them is ready, even eager, to put their lives on the line to save someone. Look at 9/11 and the twin towers. Those firemen did not wait for orders to head into a burning building. They took action, many died proudly, and because of that selfless courage, thousands of lives were saved.

I find it striking that not a single officer under Pete Arredondo’s leadership broke rank and simply did what needed to be done to save lives.

I am, in fact, completely shocked that this didn’t happen.

And parents mourned.

I believe the reason for this complete lack of action was that Arredondo’s style of leadership was probably punitive and abusive, challenging any officer who did anything that he did not like. I believe they were more afraid of him than they were afraid of being killed by the gunman. They had likely been so intimidated and beat down by him that they suffered from complete paralysis.

And the grief is unending.

Senior Living

We know similar things happened in senior living during the pandemic. Nearly every single senior community had COVID deaths. There were some communities — not many, but too many — where the death count was horrific. I promise that in every single case, it was a leadership failure that caused those horrific death counts.

But on a smaller scale today, there are teams that are intimidated, that are scared of the boss, and because of that fear they end up not doing the things they should do to protect residents. And it hurts the residents — all of them. Sometimes this happens in even great organizations, where it is an executive director or department head who is doing the terrorizing.

Great leaders need to be on guard for any signs that they and their organizations are even a little bit like what happened in Uvalde. It is our greatest challenge and greatest opportunity to be the exact opposite of that.