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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Leaking Oil and Credibility – Part II


The President as Crisis Manager

As a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Barack Obama has learned – let’s hope he’s learned – some lessons about leadership in a crisis.

Some of the criticism leveled at the President, such as the BP mess being “Obama’s Katrina,” seem a little off base and the media driven storyline about Obama needing to show a little temper was mostly just a made for cable controversy. Still the facts are that with the oil company clearly not acting quickly enough and ultimately not having a real plan to contain the damage from the big blow out, residents of the Gulf region and the county looked to Obama to lead. His record is, in my view, at best spotty.

Many Americans embraced the Sarah Palin “drill, baby, drill” notion during the last campaign, but at the same time those same folks are no fans of Big Oil. In a new USA Today poll, 71% of those surveyed say Obama should get tougher with BP. His speech from the Oval Office tonight seems likely to take a harder line, but that’s only part of the lesson from this crisis and its comes late in the crisis management game.

Most executives learn – sooner or later – that the most difficult thing to uncover in a crisis is quality information upon which to act. It became pretty clear pretty fast that the information deficit in the Gulf would be a major problem. While BP tried one Rube Goldberg fix after another, the President and his people came late to the realization that BP was making it up as they went. In short, there was little reliable information about the best strategy to contain the growing spill and all the ideas seemed to be coming from the less than credible company that caused the crisis in the first place. Everyone involved also seemed to lack good intelligence on what the moving oil slick would likely mean to the Gulf coast.

Obama needed better information earlier and faster. Lesson number one.

Most executives also learn – eventually – that you can’t delegate responsibility when you’re the top guy. For days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was the administration’s face on the scene. Nothing against Salazar, but we all know where the buck stops. The President and his advisers should have realized that this was his crisis to manage, and manage aggressively almost from day one.

So, lesson number two. Obama should have taken charge much sooner and more forcefully. I think, and again hindsight is easy, that he should have insisted on face-to-face meetings with BP leadership in the Gulf and in DC. Realizing that the government doesn’t possess the expertise to plug a blown out oil well a mile deep in the ocean, he should have raided major oil companies, universities, the national labs, private industry and foreign sources for the best available talent to manage the containment. I think the most profound criticism to level at the President is his failure to take the containment job away from BP early on. If he can fire the CEO of GM, he certainly has the moral authority to take over in this case. He should have.

Who is to say whether better solutions would have been forthcoming, but such a move would have clearly signalled that he was in charge and not relying on the company to address its own obvious failures.

Another lesson: when all is said and done this disaster will largely be about who pays and how much. Apparently the President is now insisting on a BP escrow account to be available to finance the clean up, pay claims, etc. Better late than never, but still very late. Money won’t fix all that will need to be fixed in the Gulf, but money will certainly do until something better comes along. Obama could have displayed real toughness by both taking control of the containment effort and forcing BP to put real money on the table a lot earlier.

Finally, I expect the President has learned another valuable, but painful lesson from this long ordeal: its hard to mobilize the government to effectively deal with a crisis that is both big and unpredictable. Katrina not withstanding, we generally have pretty effective national response to natural disasters – flood, hurricanes and the like – we struggle when the crisis is outside the usual box. Hard as it is to believe, federal agencies – state agencies for that matter – are rarely or routinely called upon to work together and coordinate an overall approach to a problem. They tend to be isolated, siloed organizations where even top managers, in say, the Transportation Department don’t know their counterparts over at Interior. It is a problem endemic to any large organization, but it can be particularly acute in government.

As John Kennedy famously said when the right hand of his government didn’t know what the left hand was doing – “there is always some dumb SOB who doesn’t get the word.”

That’s why any President – or Governor or CEO – needs to be able to reach down in the bureaucracy and crack heads in the interest of action. Action in government, where most folks practice survival skills full time and are horribly risk averse, even during a crisis, requires aggressive, demanding leadership.

A final lesson from history. When the great (and flawed) Winston Churchill took over as British Prime Minister in the dark days of 1940, he insisted, against almost unanimous advice, on reserving to himself the portfolio as Defense Minister as well as Prime Minister. Critics said it was too much for any one man, particularly one pushing 70 years of age. Winston was told he needed to delegate the day-to-day running of the war and focus instead on the big picture strategy.

But Churchill, who knew a few things about human nature and leadership, understood that he would get the credit or blame for every military success or failure regardless of whether some other figure had the official title. Churchill insisted on being in the middle of every decision, pushing, prodding, selecting personnel and reading reports and issuing demanding memos. He craved the responsibility and, while he certainly didn’t get every call correct, he inspired great confidence and dogged determination just when both were needed the most.

In a crisis – the Battle of Britain or a oil spill in the Gulf – the top guy is the responsible party. Might as well make the most of it, a lesson President Obama now seems to be embracing, finally.

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