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The Federal Coach

Four leadership lessons from the oil-spill's Adm. Thad Allen

The Gulf Coast oil spill has become one of the greatest environmental disasters this country has ever faced, and many are already blaming our federal government and its leaders for a failed response.

It's appropriate to question our leaders -- even in a crisis -- but we should consider both facts and context before rushing to judgment. First, let's consider the context. The federal government did not directly cause this disaster, though some are understandably examining whether regulation was too lax. Regardless, the federal government is the only entity who can bring the resources to bear to address this emergency.

Notice, I said "address" not solve. It's important to understand that leaders in crisis may have limited options -- many times "least bad" is the best option available to them. Managing expectations is an important part of leading in crisis. It's this context that makes the federal response to the oil spill a fascinating case study about crisis leadership.

Although the crisis is far from over, there's a great deal we can already learn from now-retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is the national incident commander of the oil spill disaster. I had the opportunity to interview Allen after Hurricane Katrina. Here's what I've learned by talking to him then and observing his response now:

Remember who counts:
Allen never forgets who he's serving because he's in constant contact with the people living in the Gulf Coast states. In fact, he played the same role after Hurricane Katrina and was famously accessible to folks after that disaster occurred. Like the last time around, Allen is not holed up in a command center. You should do the same when confronting a major challenge, let alone a real crisis.

Fix the problem - and don't worry about blame:
Although he's faced some criticism for working too closely with BP, the oil company responsible for the catastrophe, Allen understands that the company's equipment and technical expertise are essential to the response. Accountability will come later and is best left to others. To address the issue, focus on the solution.

Trust but verify:
The stories of Allen's own research into problems after Hurricane Katrina have become legend. If one expert provided an incomplete answer, he would consult another -- or he would perform his own research into the middle of the night -- until he found the information needed to make decisions.

Communicate constantly: Allen uses every means available to connect with his team, his many partners, and with the public. In addition to the daily press conference, he hits the morning television shows -- not because he loves the limelight, but because it's the best method of keeping people informed. In a crisis, leaders need to let the public know what they know and be honest about what they don't know yet.

What would you add to the list of crisis leadership skills? If you were leading the response in the Gulf Coast, what would you do differently? I encourage you to share your ideas or experience by leaving comments below or sending an e-mail to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Please check back on Wednesday, when I speak with former Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, or receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @thefedcoach.

By Tom Fox

 |  June 7, 2010; 9:10 AM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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As I watched Admiral Allen on television, I could not help but wonder what it might be like to have him for President.

Posted by: sdl63 | June 8, 2010 12:24 PM

The USCG's motto is "Semper Paratus" - latin for "Always Ready." In this case "Semper Paralysis" better describes the federal response. The federal government is relying on BP for spill rate estimates, vessel tracking information, spill containment, etc.

1500 vessels of opportunity are only now coming out in force ,almost 49 days into the spill.

The USCG response to most tough questions seems to be "I have Tony Hayward's phone number."

Not good.

The US government needs to send more material & manpower to the area. State and local agencies need access to vessel tracking information so that they can see what vessels are and are not deployed to their areas.

Posted by: test14 | June 8, 2010 10:45 AM

Am very impressed with Admiral Allen. In
a day long interview he was asked how he
kept his mind on his work when working in
the middle of a storm with criticism from
all sides, his reply: "I'm careful about
who rents space in my head." Thank God we
have him.

Posted by: barlowtl | June 7, 2010 5:08 PM

I agree with Thad Allen. We do need more oil skimming equipment to remove the floats of oil from the water surface. In fact we should have a whole fleet of these in the ready stage to send out to the spill or even a future spill, if regrettably, such a need should ever occur in the future. If there were a 100 of them skimming oil at the same time near the well rupture sit, they may not have kept up with the spill, but at least removed the bulk of the oil before it contacted the beaches. Truly we were not ready for this disaster. We should be in the future. Even now we could get more in service by building them at a rapid a rate to do some good for the present dilemma.

Posted by: dj_ingraham | June 7, 2010 4:06 PM

Admiral Allen has an awesome task, and he seems to be very good at making sure he is communicating to the world. I am sure he has people in many areas/sectors that are feeding him information, but perhaps the single most important aspect I would affirm but expand "Trust--but verify..." Appoint trusted individuals/sources that are charged solely with ferreting out and sorting alleged facts from fiction and outright untruths. That would be their designated role and sole purpose. Nothing beats eyes and ears on the ground in every identifed point of data or information.

Posted by: postmcafee | June 7, 2010 1:45 PM

Admiral Allen has an awesome task, and he seems to be very good at making sure he is communicating to the world. I am sure he has people in many areas/sectors that are feeding him information, but perhaps the single most important aspect I would affirm but expand "Trust--but verify..." Appoint trusted individuals/sources that are charged solely with ferreting out and sorting alleged facts from fiction and outright untruths. That would be their designated role and sole purpose. Nothing beats eyes and ears on the ground in every identifed point of data or information.

Posted by: postmcafee | June 7, 2010 1:45 PM

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