Dennise V. Tabony is the chair of the Board of Trustees for the University of Holy Cross in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is the first woman to serve as chair of the institution which was founded in 1916 as a mission of the Marianites of Holy Cross. A fully accredited Catholic institution, the University of Holy Cross offers more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs to some 1,200 students. It is also the home to the 418th circle in Omicron Delta Kappa’s history which was chartered in early 2019.
Dennise, an honoris causa initiate of the Holy Cross Circle, serves as the public affairs director in the Workforce Management and Consulting Office of the Veterans Health Administration. She began her career with the VA in honor of her father who was a Vietnam veteran.
What were your professional responsibilities with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) during Hurricane Katrina?
In August of 2005, I served as the Public Affairs Specialist for the Veterans Administration Medical Center in New Orleans. I coordinated communications efforts both internally and externally with veterans, employees, and our community. Timely communications were especially critical during Hurricane Katrina and in its aftermath because of the storm’s devastating impact on our city and surrounding areas.
What is the role of the Department of Veterans Affairs in responding to natural disasters and other types of crises?
While VA is primarily dedicated to the veterans it serves, it is also a third responder during national crises. This role includes natural disasters, where VA sets up temporary facilities offering services and/or deploys mobile units providing medical assistance, triage teams (doctors, nurses, counselors), and other needed community outreach efforts.
Serving as a leader during a disaster is challenging, but how do you manage the personal during a broader crisis?
Before working for VA, I worked in the oil and gas industry and had dealt with critical issues and communications. With Katrina, it was personal, and everything changed. Our family evacuated to a property we owned about one and a half hours northwest of New Orleans. We left with three-day’s worth of clothing and some important documents and expected to return quickly. My sister, my parents, and my cousin joined us at our property to wait out the storm. On a portable radio, we learned that Katrina was much worse than we had all expected. After several days with no electricity, no cell phone signal, no fuel, and no access to money, we realized we had to leave and drove to a small town in north Louisiana.
Sadly, Katrina changed our lives forever – flooded homes, tornadoes, and wind devastated everything in its path, and we all lost almost everything we owned. But grieving the loss of material things means very little when you’re in line with your family getting a sandwich from the Red Cross. We didn’t know where everyone was, if they were hurt or worse. We were worried about what our lives would be like when we returned – if we could return. Fear, anxiety, and worry about our property, our jobs, our city, and our future were mirrored on the faces of the other families we encountered who had evacuated. No one cared about titles or money or position; they cared about the humanity of service to one another.
With no home to return to right away, no place to report to work, and no schools open, we decided to stay until things improved in New Orleans. I brought my two children to the local public school. The school principal welcomed us, and I was once again moved to find that the school had donations from their community of school supplies and backpacks ready for them. They had also assigned buddies for both of my children so that they would have new friends and be helped within their classes. They had gotten my children’s clothing size from the local church that served as a shelter and had bags of clothing to help them start school. It is hard to explain the relief you feel as a parent to be able to continue on – grateful for these thoughtful acts and knowing that your children are being treated with such care and consideration during such a difficult and uncertain time.
What was one of the biggest lessons that you learned experiencing Hurricane Katrina?
Experiencing Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath provided me with the resilience I would need for the next 14 years. The gratitude I felt for the kindness and empathy of strangers changed my outlook on the importance of service and my views on leadership.
I worked remotely for three months, going to the local library where I had internet access. I helped draft messages for leadership to send to staff and local media groups. I participated in countless conference calls and visited several community-based outpatient clinics. I coordinated outreach efforts to track employees that were dispersed around the country. It was an unprecedented disaster that impacted multiple states, and VA played a critical role on so many levels. Keeping busy and focused on helping others was important for me – especially because our veterans and communities needed our help. There is no question that Hurricane Katrina left an indelible imprint on who I became as a person and as a leader.
What were some of the examples of leadership that you saw afterward?
The city needed leadership; however, this need wasn’t for me to own. It was for me to be a partner to a broader solution. Collaboration and building relationships were critical to our city’s future.
Leaders come from all walks of life, but one thing that they often share is a sense of commitment and purpose. This observation was especially true after Katrina. Remember, some people left the city and never came back, but others had a sense of duty to make it better. They knew that this city was worth rebuilding.
Real leadership requires steadfast commitment – even when the obstacles seem insurmountable. The crisis goes on because it touches people, and it’s a fluid process. Leaders need to be invested for the long-haul. No part of the city that wasn’t impacted, and even today, the city is still not fully recovered. In many ways, I consider Hurricane Katrina to be a process of leadership, touching multiple generations of evolving leaders from all backgrounds.
What types of leadership characteristics do you think are most effective during times of crisis?
Two of the greatest core competencies of any successful leader are flexibility and adaptability – and this is especially true during times of crisis. In a crisis, things are often moving quickly and require leadership that can adjust and change course as needed. Sometimes this involves making quick decisions. Effective leaders also recognize that they cannot handle everything; instead, they surround themselves with subject matter experts that create diverse teams to address the myriad of issues that need attention.
Relatable leadership is also important– the ability to tell stories and experiences so that others connect with you, you with them, and a shared mission. Most importantly, no matter how busy and hectic things become – true leaders should never be too busy to do the right thing. Once they lose sight of their moral compass, they are no longer worth following.
What is the role of mentorship (as a mentor or as a person being mentored) in difficult times?
Leaders who maintain a sense of purpose, humility, empathy, and strength are the most effective in critical times. Modeling leadership and kindness is essential to help develop future leaders. People often think that mentors can only be drawn from successful career professionals or community leaders. I disagree. I believe that mentors are people who demonstrate characteristics that others wish to model or learn from in their own lives. Mentors, both formal and informal, can have positive and negative traits – parts that we admire and parts that we recognize are not worth repeating. Both types of attributes are important to observe – so that as evolving leaders, we continue to learn from the experiences of others. Becoming a leader is never fully achieved – because it is a lifelong journey with incredible rewards along the way.