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Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

Todd Henshaw, a professor at Columbia University, is Academic Director of Wharton Executive Education. Previously, he directed the leadership program at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Failing the 'organizational scout' test

Q: President Obama finally meets this week with BP chief Tony Hayward on the Gulf oil spill. From a leadership perspective, which man has been the less effective in his handling of the crisis? What should he have done differently?

These post-hoc questions must always be taken with a grain of salt, and we have to remember that both men have been "on point" and "in the moment" rather than having recent history as a guide, as we do as we issue our judgment regarding their leadership. Rather than comparing
the leadership failures of Hayward and Obama, it might be more instructive to provide examples where mistakes were shared between both.

First, leaders must be the ones looking forward, anticipating the worst-case scenario for the organization or the team, an "organizational scout." Why are we drilling a mile deep if we have no proven countermeasure for the forces and conditions at that depth? Leaders have much on their plates, but they must be asking the hard questions about capabilities. Scenario planning and testing of the systems in place are a leader's tools to anticipate and prepare for contingencies, especially those that have the potential to create disastrous results.

Second, leaders must be transparent about "what we know" versus "what we don't know." It would have been better had these leaders admitted that we had no clear definition of the extent of the problem, and that each proposed solution provided a very low probability for success.

Adjusting the estimated daily flow every few days saps our confidence, and causes us to lose faith in leaders. Better to admit that we don't know how bad it is rather than providing false confidence through unsupported figures.

Third, leaders are accountable for everything that happens on their watch. Leaders also hold people and organizations accountable for what they have done, or what they have failed to do that has contributed to failure. It was disappointing to see the executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton pointing fingers at each other during the recent congressional hearings. In many cases, companies are acting in their own self interest rather than displaying leadership through accountability. BP's only chance at survival of the brand is transparency and taking full responsibility. How many times over the past 50 days have we heard "I am responsible?"

Finally, we should be weary of the many examples of leaders responding onlyafter crisis has occurred. While our world is complex and uncertain, and offers many dangers and contingencies, this is the true context of leadership. If leaders aren't looking ahead, setting expectations for performance -- especially in high risk areas -- and holding people accountable, why do we need them?

The Wall Street crisis, Hurricane Katrina and the current BP crisis
each provide an example of leadership failure at multiple levels,
whether in preparation, response, or follow through. While we would
never want these events to occur, they do provide insight into the
capabilities of our leaders and our systems to handle less probable
contingencies. Our responses to these events also provide insight into
what we value.

Our charge as voters and customers is to make sure that we remember,
even as the media moves on, to hold these leaders and their
organizations accountable for their failures and their efforts to
repair the damage. Most important, we must ensure that they are
applying the lessons from this disaster to anticipate and prevent the
next one.

By Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

 |  June 14, 2010; 8:44 PM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: A ball in the president's court | Next: Put the fishermen to work


Please report offensive comments below.

If find your question - Why are we drilling a mile deep if we have no proven countermeasure for the forces and conditions at that depth?
Completely off-point. We actually do have methods to deal with forces and conditions at that depth. The first is a Blow Out Preventer and the second is a relief well. In addition, BP has come up with some other ideas as well. Also, the only way to prove a method is to start a catastrophe, which doesnt seem like a very good idea. Accidents happen, no matter how proven the safeguards. And the gulf is adept at healing itself, witness the Itoc blow out thirty years ago

Posted by: bruce18 | June 15, 2010 11:53 AM
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While Lt. Col. Henshaw (ret) is correct in stating that leaders must have the foresight to look ahead, to anticipate everything from benefits to disasters, it is not a President's role for such. It is the very reason why a Lt. Col. does not venture out into the jungle, bush, or mountains for a reconnaissance mission or intelligence gathering. Instead a squad will do just fine as in the military. In the civilian or business well individuals or committees are given such responsibilities as with the Gulf disaster to plan ahead and anticipate the 'what ifs' that may occur with a drilling platform fire or in the opposite scenario a successful well for the oil or gas. They then report back to the chain of command their findings.
However, with BP and I suspect the others involving in oil and gas drilling off shore, monies that may be recommended for such a disaster as with equipment are not purchased are set aside as such companies do what BP initially said in that the automatic cap valve will work - it didn't, and nothing else was prepared in advance for such a monumental disaster. The companies involved were caught with their pants not just down but completely off. This allowance largely fell upon the Bush administration whose leaders had unique investments in those companies directly involved with this drilling site and accident and in particular their squad or the group minerals and license management allowed BP and undoubtedly others to drill w/o having the necessary precautions in place in case of a disaster much less the actual safety precautions for drilling also. In other words they worked for the oil companies instead of the people and government who paid their pay checks - although their pay checks may well have been padded by the oil companies for which they looked the other way in the granting of licenses and permits to drill.
Nevertheless, as President Truman said the 'Buck stops with this office or him' as does it with President Obama. This writer feels the core of such problems begins with the placing of political appointees onto such committees who may have the interests of the president who placed them there or the company for whom they once were employed vs. the career worker who will stand by the perimeters of policy written to ensure that this disaster should never have occurred at least to the magnitude it has - if the companies involved had been held accountable from the beginning by the licensing and permit board and not by President Obama but rather President and perhaps VP Bush and Cheney.

Posted by: davidmswyahoocom | June 15, 2010 8:08 AM
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A rather meaningless article full of cliches but little analysis or insight or reflection. The author conveniently ignores existing law, the polical economy of regulation, the history of past regulatory decisions. Instead he expects instantaneous and unilateral intervention by the President. I am sure that if that had happened, as a business school faculty member he would have been the first one to pontificate on the dangers of government intervening in the functioning of a private economy. Along with others he would have accused thePres about being a socialist.

Posted by: skepticji | June 15, 2010 7:53 AM
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