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Five Leadership Lessons From the Gulf of Mexico

RP Siegel | Tuesday July 6th, 2010 | 0 Comments

A recent posting on the Harvard Business Review website by Gill McCorkindale discusses leadership and the lack thereof as demonstrated in the manmade disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that was precipitated by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

For starters, the author cites President Obama in drawing a comparison between this crisis and the 9/11 tragedy. She goes on to conclude that “the behaviors and attitudes of leaders have been disappointing at best and irresponsible at worst,” in the current crisis, while “there were many examples of good leadership during and after 9/11.” She says this without once mentioning the four letter name of our leader at that time, whose complete ineptitude in the face of that disaster, and the one that followed in New Orleans, will surely be the stuff of legend for decades, if not centuries to come. Other than informing us of the author’s political leanings, the comparison sheds little light. Especially when you look at Obama’s remarks in context and realize that they are completely indisputable. What the president said was:

“In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come,”

Leaving that prologue aside for a moment, let us examine the five lessons that Ms. McCorkindale offers us.

  1. Crises expose dysfunctional cultures. Citing an earlier blog post, he acknowledges that BP’s culture “sanctioned extreme risk-taking, ignored expert advice, overlooked warnings about safety issues and hid facts.” Experience has shown that crises expose whatever culture you have, be it dysfunctional or exemplary.
  2. Leaders must recognize when a crisis can’t be spun. Hayward’s attempt at spin made him appear, “weak, petty, defensive and lacking a grip on the situation.” So when should you spin a crisis? In my opinion, never. In fact, when should you spin anything? Never. Spin is double-speak for lie. It is what you do what you know you screwed up and hoping no one else knows it. By the time you are spinning, you are on the slippery slope, otherwise known as the road to hell. The American people are wising up and they are getting pretty tired of being lied to both by companies and politicians.
  3. Leaders need to work together rather than scoring points or deflecting blame. This was the entry point to attack Obama, saying he was slow to react and “responding to criticisms of his own slow response by deflecting blame unequivocally on BP,” which suggests that Ms. McCorkindale, who happens to be British, does not believe it was BP’s fault, or at least, not unequivocally BP’s fault. If anything, I blame the president for not being more forthright in explaining to the American people about how it was the laissez-faire culture encouraged by his predecessor that was almost equally at fault. I say, almost because BP was more wrong in choosing to behave as recklessly as they did, knowing fully what the consequences might be. The fact that they knew that no one was watching, does not, to my mind, excuse them in the least, though the sleeping watchman and the person who recruited him are also deserving of reprimand. Does anyone remember the saying about how the true test of character is what you do when no one is watching?
  4. Leaders are there to serve their companies, people and communities. “True leaders are stewards of their organizations and must lead for the longer term.”  Another way to say this is that leaders need to accept accountability, take responsibility and should never gamble with the public trust.
  5. True leadership exists beyond title and office. Here he offers praise for the many local individuals who have gone beyond reasonable measures, risking their own health and safety in service to their fellow citizens, as well he should. He also takes another cheap shot at “political leaders,” while taking pains to single out Gov. Bobby Jindal for praise. While Jindal has not yet deployed Louisiana’s National Guard to assist with the spill, he did declare June 27th as a statewide day of prayer for perseverance in the face of the spill. True leadership is about articulating a vision that reaches well beyond the immediacy of short term gain and taps into what is highest and best in all of us. A true leader’s job is to serve those who put their trust in him by finding an earthly path towards making that vision a reality.

A recent post on The Good, The Bad, The Spin explores ten myths about crisis management. They argue that every crisis is different and therefore must be handled individually depending on circumstances, like for instance, whether or not the crisis was the person’s fault or not.

My feeling about this is that it’s really not that complicated. And since I like to complain about people who criticize without offering alternatives, I am going to avoid that by offering my own five leadership lessons from the crisis. Here goes:

  1. Have nothing to hide. If you put yourself in a position where telling the truth will not be a problem, well, then telling the truth will not be a problem. If not, well, then you have a problem. There used to be a word in the English language called integrity. If you don’t know what it means, look it up. It has fallen out of usage recently because it’s not nearly as glamorous as billionaire. Given the well-documented fact that BP had an egregious safety record long before this latest incident, why talk about spin?
  2. Tell the truth. This follows directly from Lesson #1. If you tell the truth people will believe you. It engenders trust. Regular people can tell.
  3. Be humble and contrite. Even if you are the CEO of an enormous company, you still put your pants on one leg at a time (unless you wear a skirt to work.). Admit you made a mistake. People will want to help you instead of hating you.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This follows from Lesson #3. Two heads are better than one. Recognize the value of local knowledge. A surprising number of people care a lot about their planet and those people all know things. I personally sent several suggestions to BP, that had been forwarded to me by some very smart people but they were all turned down.
  5. Understand the true meaning of national security. This last one is reserved for the political leaders. When the Amoco-Cadiz broke up off the coast of France back in 1978, unleashing an amount of oil roughly comparable to what has leaked in the Gulf of Mexico thus far, the French Navy was immediately deployed to manage all offshore operations. If instead of an oil spill in the Gulf, there had been a battered rowboat with three 14-year-olds from Yemen clutching suspicious looking parcels, all the fury of hell and damnation would have been unleashed upon them within minutes after they were first spotted. And yet, this disaster will harm us as much or more than 9/11 did, as did the banking crisis, Hurricane Katrina, and the numerous incidents of tainted food. And, as the climate continues to destabilize, scientists tell us to brace for more. Just because there is no one to shoot at, doesn’t mean it’s not a threat. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Yes, we have the most powerful military in the world, but I’d like to think that’s not all that we have.

Perhaps this seems like a lot to ask, but it’s really nothing more than what we ask of ourselves, is it? So why should companies be different? If we’re going to have a sustainable economy someday, I don’t think they can be.

RP Siegel is co-author of Vapor Trails, a story about an oil company, a spill, and a lesson learned.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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