by Beth Townsend
New Orleans was flooded and countless people stranded, hundreds missing or unaccounted for and many others dead or presumed to be; hopelessness abounded. It was chaos, however when Lieutenant General Russel Honoré stepped onto the scene after Hurricane Katrina, it was evident this was a man God had equipped to lead. Order began to take shape, and with it came calm to a desperate place.
“Tuesday night I got the mission. Wednesday morning at 9:47 a.m., I landed at the Superdome in a navy helicopter,” the physically imposing general said quietly, his vivid remembrances recalled with a furrowed brow as the reality of that moment replayed in his mind. At that time, General Honoré was 33rd Commander of the First Army headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. Their job was to train and mobilize National Guard Reserve forces.
“Our mission was to provide military support to civil authorities from the Mississippi River to the East Coast of the United States [including] Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. As Katrina crossed the Caribbean we’d been tracking it for a week. By the time it turned into Florida we had already submitted a requirement for ships and equipment,” Honoré said.
“Katrina came in Sunday night and Monday. We moved Tuesday morning from Atlanta to Mississippi. By then the cameras were rolling,” he said. “You see water in houses. You see people trapped around the Super Dome. You see the roof ripped off,” he said as he recalled the devastation and havoc wreaked on the principal city of his home state.
“When I got to Biloxi Tuesday, I called my boss to describe the colossal damage. By then news reports were constantly coming out of NOLA showing the number of people desperate to be evacuated,” he said. “He gave the OK to move to NOLA immediately. I’d only brought 130 people with me to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Miss.” He continued, “We’d set up headquarters there so we could operate throughout the day. We had logistics, which is what we desperately needed in NOLA. We needed trucks. We needed helicopters. We needed airplanes. We needed food and water.”
He paused as though the scenario was there in front of him to consider. “Our challenge was that 80% of the city was underwater. Roads were closed. Most of the places people would typically go for help were underwater,” he recalled. “People’s homes were under water. Grocery stores, drug stores, fire stations, they were [all] under water.” There was no power. As the sun went down and the city darkened, their mission to save lives was interrupted.
“By Friday we had more than 200 helicopters. Search and rescue had started; assets were on the way. We felt better Saturday when we were able get people from the convention center to the airport,” he said. “Yet, we still had to go house to house. That was another week of finding people alive, as well as dead.” Gen. Honoré added that contrary to popular belief, most of the lives that were saved were saved by neighbors and volunteers.
“To prepare for hurricanes we tell people to have 3-5 days of food and water. It takes time to get in to help,” Honoré stated. “Roads were closed, the airport had debris scattered about in NOLA, as well as Biloxi. Fixing that takes logistics.” He continued, “Many troops started asking about how quickly we would be able to do what needed to be done. On more than one occasion, I told them they were looking at a a calendar and I was looking at watch!” Honoré punctuated his remark as if still the urgency of the task at hand remained.
The now retired Lt. Gen. went on to describe how change was needed and whose responsibility it was to carry it out. “How do you accelerate change? That is the role of a leader. Everyone knows what he or she wants to do,” he said. “How do you get them to do it now? By harnessing the power of the very people who are the victims. In many cases that is what we did. We were able to empower the people to help them to take care of themselves.”
Gen. Honoré was clear about the goal of the mission: them out of the city! He explained that the 2nd group of aircraft came in on Saturday.
“The pilot requested a manifest to satisfy FAA rules. Well, where are you going to get a manifest? Some people didn’t even have identification. Do we stop the evacuation? Or do we convince these pilots to fly the airplanes?,” he said. “We ended up convincing the pilots to fly. Proper procedures were going to take hours, maybe days. We didn’t have hours. It’s just an example of how sometimes you have to get people to change now.”
His voice grew louder. “What do you tell people who have been sitting there for seven days? You don’t have identification, so you can’t leave? No. You have to apply common sense. These are human beings! Some of our man-made rules overrule in a disaster evacuation.”
It was clear that Honoré’s passion for this mission came from the heart. Born and raised in Lakeland, La., the storm attacked close to home. As the eighth of twelve children, he was also the eighth son born to his parents. He went to grade schools in Lakeland and graduated high school in New Roads. His childhood dream was to study dairy farming and become a county agent after attending Southern University and studying agriculture.
While enrolled at Southern he was required to join the ROTC; the Vietnam War that was at its zenith. “When I finished Southern in January 1971, I had obligations in the Army,” he said. “While in the ROTC there was a deferment from the draft. My intentions were if I was going to go in the Army, I was going to go in as a commissioned officer. So, I stayed in college and got my commission.”
“That obligation became a way-of-life; 37-years, 3 months and 3 days later, not until then, did I take that uniform off,” he stated. During his career Gen. Honoré and his wife Beverly moved 24 times and raised four children before moving back to Baton Rouge.
It is easy to sense the leadership qualities engrained in this impressive man, with his commanding presence and skills shaped by his service to country.
“Leadership started for me as president of our 4H Club in elementary school. Then in high school, I was president of the 4H Club, and graduated as president of my class,” he said. Gen. Honoré’s rural roots remain strong. The tam he wore at the pinnacle of his career has been exchanged for a cowboy hat, the fatigues replaced by jeans, and the boots he wears are now of the “cowboy” variety. With a comfortable smile and the magnetic charm of a southern gentleman, he seemed to enjoy talking about his quarter horse. And though the moments for which he became so widely known ten years ago are now tucked away in history books, he easily recalls the events that shaped him for success at the point when his leadership and skills were needed most.
“When I went to Southern it was a much bigger pond. The focus was working my way through and finishing college. That, and my ROTC requirement where I became a cadet major, the second highest cadet in the program, which gave me another opportunity to practice leadership skills,” he said. Adjusting from an emphasis on agriculture to the military was an easy transition for Honoré.
“The role is not [about] how much you know, but how to get people to change. That is the underpinning of leadership,” he explained. “Not getting people to do what they want to do, but it’s more about getting people to do what they don’t want to do; that is change.” He continued, “We have to remember that we are a nation that learned how to adapt and overcome. We would have never won World War II if we didn’t learn how to adapt and overcome.”
“We didn’t build this nation figuring out what we didn’t have. We built this nation making the best of what we did have. That lesson for me started on that little dirt farm in Lakeland, Louisiana,” he laughed. “We had one television that had sound and another had the picture. If you wanted to watch, you put them together. I mean we did what we had to do, to do what we wanted to do.” His childhood faith was important in becoming the man he is today.
“I was raised Catholic. My mom used to say when things were grim around the house, ‘the sun would shine in our back door one day,’ meaning things would always get better.” As he discussed his faith, the general approached it with thoughtfulness.
“I’m not a public person who says if you ask me about something I’d say I’m going to pray about it. That would be disingenuous,” he said. “Do I pray for success? Yes. Do I reach back on what I’ve been taught? Yes! But, I’m not going to patronize you by saying, ‘I’m praying over that.’”
“Because of my 37 years in the military, I’m a man of action. Before we got started on any mission, we’d say our prayer and move on. We’ve got to make our luck,” he said with conviction. “The harder you work the better your faith will work. You can have all the faith in the world and sit down in that chair and think something is going to happen for you but it won’t. You can wear that Bible out studying. But your body was made by the Lord to move and work. Somehow my faith serves me a lot better when I work hard and try to do the right thing.”
In his latest book, “Leadership in the New Normal,” the final chapter is dedicated to teaching how to save your best leadership for when you get home. His time in the military taught him that due to that stress on troops, they needed to address leadership both at work and at home. Learning from his family helped him refine the message.
“Soccer games, baseball games, track meets, girl scouts,” he laughed as he recalled those busy times, as well as the challenges born from relocating the family so often. “The kids were in different communities. So getting them there, getting them connected with friends, that is what you do. They learned to quickly look out for each other. They also learned how to let go when it was time to move.”
There was a defining moment when he felt the need to seek a bolder approach. “Our problem emerged around 2005. We’d been deploying troops overseas, almost back-to-back tours, and that was starting to cause stress on our leadership,” he explained. “Our lawyer would tell me that sergeant so and so or colonel so and so had a domestic disturbance. Those went from sporadic to almost every other day. I realized, ‘we’ve got to talk about this.’ That is when I started to speak to saving your best leadership for when you get home.”
Recalling when he and Beverly started their family, he continued, “I tell a humorous story about when our first daughter was born. The first few months were easy. I’d walk in the back door and my pretty little wife would be cooking in this little 1,100 square foot army house. We were happy as a pie! That baby is sleeping and smiling,” he said. “All of a sudden a few months later that baby started to move!” Smiling at his recollection, the rough-hewn general turned into a gentle father. “She would hear my truck, she’d meet me at the back door and latch onto my leg!”
“Then I can remember distinctively when I came through that door later and asked, ‘where is daughter number one?’ ‘Next door’.” He continued, “Then on another Friday I asked, ‘where is daughter number one?’ ‘She is spending the weekend in the country.’”
“Then one day, when I sat across from this thing that used to jump in my lap, I asked, ‘what did you do today?’ she said, ‘Nothing,’ ‘Who you hanging out with?’ ‘Nobody.’ You talk to friends and family and they say not to worry, that is just a stage,” he explained. “What we came to learn is that is not a stage, that is a leadership challenge, [and] you better deal with that because if you’ve got a leadership problem at work you can deal with that or send it away, but you can’t do that with your family.”
“There is a point in speeches across the country when I look into the audience and see people crying. I’ve seen grown men and women get out tissues. It’s too close to home,” he explained. “You can work, and you can work, and you can work some more. Then you look around and say, ‘where did these kids come from [after] as hard as I’ve worked for their success?’”
“When things happen people say, ‘Well you could see that coming, dad’s never home,’ or ‘that kid almost raised himself,’ how many times have you heard that?” he asked. “I feel strong about it. I never played golf. I still don’t play golf. If I’d played golf I’d miss two kids’ games on Saturday,” he stated adamantly.
“We didn’t have golf days in the army. You didn’t take an afternoon off. We were working soldiers and I was in the infantry. We were gone 20 or 30 percent of the time, sometimes 40 percent. So when you are home, you’ve got to be home,” Honoré said.
When discussing the American family, his response was targeted: “Culturally we’ve allowed ourselves to become consumed with distractions. Beverly and I raised our kids, and our last son is leaving his house next week and he does not have a television in his room,” he explained. “We never allowed a television in a bedroom for a child. They are not perfect, but they are good enough. They are doing alright,” his warm smile, evidence of a proud father.
“Plus kids have to know they are on a team. Are there people on the team that they are closer with? Yes, but they are on a team. There is no room for this individuality horse crap in a family,” he stated. “You ought not be picking up after children that are old enough to walk, talk and move around. We create this servant attitude. The team I grew up on was simple: You go milk the cow. You go feed the pigs. You go kill the chicken.”
“There are many helicopter parents saying, ‘I’ve got to drive them here and there,’” he said. “That’s good, but when they get home, they’re on a team. If they don’t learn how to work as a team inside the home, they are going to have major adjustment problems when they go to work.” He continued, “If they are treated like a little queen or prince with people cleaning up after them it’s going to be a rude awakening.”
General Honoré does not claim to be a religious leader, but his faith is solid. “I’m not good enough to quote from the Bible. Our family went to church every Sunday; we went to Catholic education classes; we met the obligations,” he explained. But, you can’t go wrong operating within the Ten Commandments. When in doubt, read those. What should I do? You don’t need to look far.”
The general keeps busy by spending time with his family, fighting pollution, and investing in the Honoré Center at Southern University.
Southern University established the Honoré Center for Undergraduate Student Achievement to undertake an important challenge: to reverse the trend of fewer African-American males graduating from college, while increasing the number of male classroom teachers in urban settings.
Male graduates from New Orleans area high schools are recruited for the initiative, which provides recipients with added support and resources to assist in completing their college education at the Southern University at New Orleans campus. Each candidate agrees that in return for the resources invested in him, he will serve at least two years as a local classroom teacher.
Honoré is proud to invest in the lives of young men. “We give them an opportunity to go to college,” he said. “The only difference between that kid and an uptown kid is resources—if he has the will to learn. It’s like a lump of coal and a diamond. The difference between the two is heat and pressure.” There is a strict honor code: No alcohol, no drugs and no babies.
“You can’t be a freshmen in college worrying about how you are going to take care of your girlfriend’s baby. To get into the program, we don’t deal with that. We have a uniform. You don’t swag. You don’t wear your pants around your knees. You don’t wear your hat sideways.” He continued, “We’ve infused some old-school rules. Some say we are a little too draconian, but you have to understand where these kids come from; they need structure. We have study hall at night. These are kids that need to catch up, most are not ready for a standard university, yet some end up on honor roll.”
Honoré continued, “We do monthly urine tests; we believe in trust, but verify. That may not be state law [but] it’s Honoré law,” he exclaimed. “We’ve got rules on our team. If a football team can have rules, why can’t an academic program have rules? They also have to go the gym and keep their bodies in shape. We also added a chaplain.”
“For 37 years in the army we had a chaplain,” he explained. “These boys may not know it now, but they will need one at some point, someone to connect with, [to] help them find out where they are spiritually, as well as help them figure out how to deal with things that are out of their control.” Honoré is living his life’s purpose: to lead, to teach, to inspire, yet it was not long ago when he was asked a simple question that would help shape the rest of his life.
“I had an experience shortly after Katrina. I had a couple of years left in the army, about every ten days we would talk to a chaplain,” he said. “No agenda for those visits. He sits in one chair and I in another with no table in between us. Chaplains kind of meet you where you are. After a prayer we would talk, kind of like life coaching.” Honoré continued, “One day he said, ‘well now you are back from Katrina, now what?’ I responded, ‘I really don’t know,’” he said. “He asked another question: ‘what are the two most important days of your life?’” Honoré laughed and then grew serious; “I gave him the typical answer, when I got married and when my kids were born.”
“That must be a standard Judeo-Christian answer. He said, ‘good answer.’ Then he asked again. ‘Think about it this way: Think about the day you were born, and the day you figured out why God allowed you to be born.’ It was that moment I knew what I would be doing the rest of my life,” he said. “Taking my experience from Katrina and spreading that throughout the world. The next two years I worked hard, but the day I turned over commission I started writing a book.”
“I had a guy come to my house and for six weeks we wrote a book called “Survival”. Now people pay me good money to talk about preparedness. What got me focused was that question from my chaplain.” He continued, “When he put it in context, I knew. There could have been fifty other generals in NOLA. I happened to be that one. I’d never studied for that moment.”
“My platform is simple: Be prepared, have food, have water. Your team is your family; check on your neighbors, give someone a ride,” he stated. “That is the message I take to the American people.”
Honoré also shares with audiences across the country the need for change at home. “It’s much easier to lead at work, because you are not emotionally connected, yet one feeds to the next,” he said. “If you’ve got a boss that left his house in a fight with his wife, that is coming into the office. You can’t be as creative or freethinking because that is in the back of your mind.”
“I still run into parents not on social media; also, preachers, teachers, police and school administrators [who are] not on social media. If you are in charge of other people’s kids, you better catch up!” Honoré continued, “Don’t be behind the times. Get up to speed. You have to know what is going on. If technology weren’t good for us, it wouldn’t be here. Work out, eat right and communicate right, even people of faith. Use it.”
Honoré has been pictured with presidents, international dignitaries and major political figures. He understudied the best of leaders and was offered the best in leadership courses. Yet, when asked who was his most influential leader, there was no hesitation: “My parents,” he smiled. “Everything after that was just fertilizer.”
On February 28, 2008, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré clocked out for the final time as an active member in the United States Army and pulled up to his house. The thousands of troops he once commanded were not there; it was just Beverly and their four children waiting for him when he arrived. “My team.”