Staying ahead of the tsunami
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?
Neither of these leaders realized the extent of this disaster and for that matter, neither did the media. Initially, it was characterized as an "oil spill" or an "oil leak," which we now know is more accurately described as an oil tsunami. The biggest differences in the leadership of the president and the head of BP are what they knew, when they knew it, and how they responded to both.
Drilling for oil is BP's expertise and they knew immediately they had drilled beyond their level of competency to deal with this problem. They gambled and lost, and now they and we are paying for it. The company's leadership failed to anticipate the worst and lacked an effective response and remedy when the unimaginable occurred. And as the oil continues to pollute the waters and wetlands, BP continues to guess what the solution needs to be. The gushing residue is now poisoning the waters and washing up on shores once populated with tourists.
Hayward knew they didn't have a viable solution but reassured the public anyway that they could and would fix the "spill." As we began to see that they had no workable solution and our trust in BP's veracity decreased, the public's mounting anxiety focused on the government to rescue us from danger and disaster, but the danger and disaster had already happened. The public began to look to the government to "do something." As unreasonable as it is to expect any president or democratic government to plug a hole, those expectations needed to be managed.
President Obama did the prudent thing initially by trying to find out what the facts were and sort through the reasonable options the federal government had to intervene. He wanted to be informed before speaking and we are told he immediately went into the mode of planning the government's response. When a business failure is of such a scope that irreparable harm can be done to public safety, government intervention is required. President Obama quickly grasped the systemic nature of the problem, one of his leadership gifts, but didn't seem as focused on managing the immediate situation.
He failed to stay ahead of the "tsunami," by communicating what he knew and what the government was doing about it. By not understanding the more public nature of his leadership role early on, the President allowed others to define his actions and question his leadership as "being out of touch." In a crisis, the ceremonial role of a leader is very important, as we learned in the Oklahoma bombings and 9-11. The President has now combined being seen with the planning and acting functions all leaders must possess. The BP CEO has, I hope, added the capacity to take a longer view and incorporate planning in his leadership repertoire.
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