Meet a Member: Mississippi Representative Proud of Response to Disaster

E-newsletter Issue #69 | May 12, 2011

In a spring that has seen the South hammered by tornadoes, torrential rains and historic flooding, Mississippi Rep. Dirk Dedeaux said the Magnolia State is putting to good use the lessons it has learned from previous natural disasters.  

“The biggest natural disaster that I’ve encountered was, obviously, Hurricane Katrina,” Dedeaux said. “My district borders the Gulf of Mexico and we were the first land area in Mississippi for Katrina to hit. It was widespread devastation.”

While Dedeaux hates to see his state dealing with the problems caused by the flooding of the Mississippi River and the F5 tornado that wiped out the small town of Smithville, he is proud of how his state learned from Katrina and is now better able to serve its residents in their time of need.  

“The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, after Katrina, they are better prepared to react and help in this type of disaster relief,” said Dedeaux.

A sense of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches, said Dedeaux, made it possible for Mississippi to learn from Katrina and be better prepared for future disasters. 

“During an emergency, government becomes a very executive thing,” he said.  “As a legislature, our job is to learn from what worked, what didn’t work, how can we respond better?  The legislature can be effective before and after by learning and evaluating and making the changes the executive branch needs to be better equipped to serve during the next crisis.  I think we have done that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.”

Dedeaux was first elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1995 at the young age of 23.  A self-effacing humor and quiet leadership style have allowed him to make his mark in the legislature over the ensuing years despite being one of the youngest members.  

“My issue has been that I’m among a group where I’m younger than most people I seek to lead, so I am aware that my colleagues have seniority on me in years,” said Dedeaux. “That makes it challenging.”

“A lot of times, you have to present the issue in a way that everybody recognizes what the solution is without demanding a certain course of action. Once everyone knows the options, then it becomes easier to make things happen.  For instance, you don’t walk into McDonald’s and demand ‘Everyone’s ordering a hamburger or else.’ You say,  ‘What kinds of things can you order here? Hamburgers are their specialty? Maybe we should get hamburgers.’”

Dedeaux has an easy Southern charm and a knack for homespun storytelling -- skills that have endeared him to colleagues and have enabled him to lead by helping guide others gently out of their comfort zones.  

“The truly effective leaders are the ones who can operate outside the bounds of their own comfort zone,” said Dedeaux. “For some people, a comfort zone is a party or a philosophy. But if you build a comfort zone and stay there, you can’t be an effective leader.  It’s like this: The guy who goes out and makes a touchdown is a guy who is operating way outside his comfort zone.  If you stay where nobody can tackle you, then you won’t make any touchdowns.”

Dedeaux said one of his proudest moments as a leader came when he embraced an area outside of his comfort zone. He’s chair of the committee that deals with Medicaid, a program in which most states have a budget crisis.

“As chair, I had to become a part of that solution,” he said. “Medicaid is very complicated and I had to immerse myself in the unfamiliar language and policy and impacts of Medicaid.  If I had failed to do that, then I would have let people down. What helped me emerge as a leader was to gain the knowledge I needed to contribute to a solution.  Being part of a solution is key to being a leader.”

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