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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Commandant Thad Allen

What leader outside of your own sphere of expertise has impacted your leadership philosophy the most?

Like everyone else in the country stunned by Hurricane Katrina's devastation five years ago this summer, I found myself watching TV and asking the big question: How come Anderson Cooper gets it but FEMA doesn't? A wretched 10,000 souls at the Superdome, stuck without water or food or sanitation or medicine, did not seem a good plan. President Bush didn't help things by first visiting with a high-altitude flyover and then by putting his arms around beleaguered FEMA chief Michael Brown with the now-famous, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!"

It was pretty clear to everyone to no one was doing a heckuva job. But after a little poking around, it was also clear that Michael Brown did not fly into the Gulf determined to make a mess of the biggest professional challenge he would face in his career. The big leadership question wasn't why people were stuck. The storm was responsible for that. It was why so many people tried so hard in the early days with so little result.

The answer came clear a few days later, when the Coast Guard commandant, Admiral Thad Allen, flew in to become the Fed-in-charge of making things happen. He's an eyes-of-steel, take-no-prisoners officer who focused squarely on getting the job done--and, in short order, things started happening. Even for viewers following the story through the television, there was a moment when, at long last, the system gradually began creaking back to life. The reason was that Thad Allen was in charge.

Think about the situation. Same wind-ripped-roofs, same sludge and water, same people stuck, same organizational assets, same mandate for action. The only thing different was a different leader. And that leader produced vastly different results.

How did he lead differently? Michael Brown led by trying to manage his agency and to bring other agencies in line with his efforts. Thad Allen led by focusing everyone's attention on the inescapable problem, defining what had to be done first, figuring out who had which resources that could help, and bring those resources to bear on solving the problem.

It's not often that a leader is dealt a hand of cards and everyone scrutinizes so intently how he plays it. The stakes couldn't have been higher or the consequences of failure more direct. Thad Allen not only played his hand with consummate skill and impressive results. He also established a new model of leadership for the 21st century.

In an era in which our big problems behave like a three-year old with a box of crayons--where nothing remains within the lines we've drawn to try to manage our lives--we can't afford stay-in-the-lines leaders. No organization can, any longer, truly solve the problems for which they are responsible. We can't afford leaders whose view of leadership is limited to managing the organizations in which they sit. Instead, we need leaders who lead by creatively and authoritatively defining the problems they face; by determining the assets they need to solve them; by finding where the assets are and focusing them on the problems; and holding themselves--and the system--accountable for ensuring that the problems get solved.

Thad Allen is the defining leader for the new century. He not only successfully tackled a leadership challenge of truly frightening dimension. He also helped us learn how to tackle the host of boundary-spanning challenges that increasingly are defining 21st century leadership.

By Donald Kettl

 |  February 21, 2010; 12:06 PM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The darkness in our spirits | Next: Al Haig: The leader I want to remember


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Donald Kettl,

You give the great one too much credit. First let’s note that Admiral Allen is not in Haiti, and it’s going great. Second you must account for the fact that President Bush had already screwed up, failed to provide resources and remove barriers for Brown before Allen went down to Katrina.

When Allen arrived he every resource denied to Brown, plus he had the direct ear of the President. Brown didn’t have that. Don’t take away from this that I think Brown tried hard enough, but he certainly wasn’t getting much support from the White House.

Allen did what every Coastie is trained to do. That said Allen didn’t do it alone. Lastly remember the same person you hold up as your iconic leader was Chief of Staff of three years before becoming Commandant on the coat tails of his Katrina mission. That means he’s had 7 full years to impact the Coast Guard in a positive way.

Under his leadership Coast Guard has lost hundreds of millions of dollars to Deepwater/ICGS. As Chief of Staff the Acquisition Directorate reported to him. As Commandant he had firsthand knowledge of the issues. Also during his time as Commandant his Coast Guard Academy had three noose incidents. All unsolved with a relatively small group of suspects.

In 2009 Congress held two hearing to examine a scathing report by Booz Allen Hamilton that revealed what employees had reported to Allen; “Coast Guards Civil Rights Directorate was not in compliance with Federal Law.” The employees who reported this were faced with reprisal, reprimands, transfers and many left the agency. Your hero refused requests for assistance prior to the Booz Allen Hamilton review, and never apologized after its release and confirmation of their reports.

That Mr. Kettl is not very reflective of Coast Guards Core Values or Allen’s own Guardian Ethos. He left those employees out in the cold for trying to use the chain of command first, and only turning to the Blogosphere when they had no choice.
By the way, in his opening remarks at the first hearing on Coast Guard Civil Rights, Rep. Elijah Cummings said:

“The proximate motivation for this request was the posting of derogatory blog entries on the web. However, as the Subcommittee has come to learn, there have long existed challenges far more central to the provision of effective civil rights services within the Coast Guard than those discussed in recent blog comments.”

Again, Mr. Kettl … this is the leader you thought of first.

Posted by: cgreport | February 23, 2010 6:22 AM
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Barry shows he "supports our troops" in typical liberal fashion, by cutting the Coast Guard's 2011 budget by 3.3% and firing more than 1,100 Sailors.

Posted by: screwjob2 | February 23, 2010 12:05 AM
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Awesome. The first comment on this story is a twisted, delusional, political hack's diatribe. Get a grip and some help. Semper Paratus

Posted by: luvpool | February 22, 2010 10:10 PM
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I was a Coast Guard contractor on the Katrina Clean up operation for a while. I am also a retired Coast Guard warrant officer with extensive experience during the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup. I served for over 24 years on active duty in the Coast Guard.

Ahh...ummm....errr...let me just make a statement.

Although I am proud of my years of active duty I have to be honest and say that the Coast Guard is...how shall I say this?....not exactly the organization that meets the eye. It serves its purpose and does the best it can with limited resources. However, setting it up as a standard for federal beauracratic behavior is going too far.

It is constantly fighting with tunnel vision, limited leadership paradigms, a sycophantic culture at the highest levels of the organization that is stiffling in its reach and murderous in its implications to anyone, anywhere in the organization that "marches to a different drummer".

Time and time again I saw mid level officers and senior enlisted people get sacrificed so that higher level officers could escape responsibility for the bone-headed decisions that they made or forced others to make.

No, I am sorry. The Coast Guard has fine people but its leadership paradigms, its nepotism within its higher ranks and its almost early 20th Century New England style heavily Caucasian leadership inner circle is not representative of the American people.

I was proud to be a U.S. Coast Guardsman but I served on too many high level staffs to be hoodwinked by PR that the Coast Guard floats to the media.

The Coast Guard has a very long way to go in the area of personal and organizational leadership.

CWO3 Tom Barnes, USCG (Ret.)

Posted by: Barnes848 | February 22, 2010 6:24 PM
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An event the size of Katrina requires military leadership and skills to tackle. The Coast Guard is, primarily, still a 'response organization' and played right into the hand and experience of ADM Allen. Use of the Incident Command System to respond to large events is standard operating procedure.

Posted by: Sojouner | February 22, 2010 11:24 AM
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As an ex-Coast Guardsman, I've always been proud of this branch of service. Many of the officers in the Coast Guard are outstanding.
Moreover, their unselfish dedication to duty is an example for many. While a service which is few in number, their contributions to the welfare of our country are countless.

Posted by: richard36 | February 22, 2010 11:08 AM
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saw him on c-span awhile back, and he sounded impressive as I recall. he even made cutbacks and regrouping in the Guard sound good. bravo

Posted by: mloaks | February 22, 2010 9:51 AM
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Coast Guard commandant, Admiral Thad Allen is at least a leader in a government that was apparently without leadership during Katrina. However, Katrina only revealed waht the Republican discrediting of government, starting with Reagan and exemplified by Bush has manifested itself in incomprehensible incompetence be it Katrina or the reconstruction corruption and waste in Iraq and the list goes on! Republicans despise government for the people and seek its failure; when office, succeed as a result of their incompetence in combination with their ideology of Reagnomics (Milton Friedman) ultra-capitalism of privatization, elimination of social services, tax cuts for the wealthy, tax cuts and subsidies for corporations resulting in the present criminal and corrupt corporate state.

Posted by: kemcb | February 22, 2010 8:29 AM
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