The least-valuable-player award
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?
What should we call this prize? The Less Valuable Player Award? The fact is, both men have not responded to the crisis in a manner that the public deserves and expects. People, especially the residents of the gulf region, want to be assured that the president of the United States and the chief executive officer of BP are focused and caring leaders.
The response by Tony Hayward and BP has been a textbook example of how not to handle a crisis. Hayward hardly inspired confidence at the start when he committed some verbal gaffes, most notably the "I'd like my life back" remark. In addition, BP has seemed uncomfortable with the facts of the situation, regularly underestimating the amount of oil gushing out of the rupture and denying the existence of oil plumes.
As for President Obama, he made an early mistake when he said he would hold BP accountable whether or not he met with Tony Hayward. But he should have met right away with Hayward, just as he did with the CEOs of the auto and financial industries when he was first addressing those matters. The symbolic nature of such meetings is unmistakable. They show that the president is on top of things, but also that he's flexible and interested in gathering the data and opinions that will inform his decisions.
Just after the gulf story broke, the president should have gone before the nation and explained in no uncertain terms that he would be in charge of the response to the disaster. We didn't see that. Moreover, he initially relied on BP's information when he must have known how risky that would appear without independent verification; and various government agencies seem to be involved in coordinating the response, which has only made matters more confusing. Has the White House set up a war room to help direct the response to the crisis? If so, we haven't heard about it.
That's an important part of leadership, providing your constituents with the information they need to feel that they understand the issue and that their leaders know what they're doing. At times such as these, the American people want to see empathy and focus in their president, as the public observed in President Clinton's response to the Oklahoma City bombing, to cite one example. A president must demonstrate that he appreciates people's problems and predicaments, that he is, in fact, one of us.
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