Where does the buck stop?
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?
When things go wrong, people first look to their leaders to help them understand what's happening and give a sense of confidence that they understand what's necessary. Then they want a solution. The Gulf Oil spill is a tough call on leadership, since the problem is messy in every way; technically, managerially, politically and visually. So with a solution at least weeks away, the leadership judgment can so far only be about handling.
In the case of Tony Hayward, a plunging share price and remorseless public criticism hardly demonstrate that confidence has been established. On the other hand he compares reasonably well with others faced with similar crises in admitting its seriousness (although not initially the scale), avoiding unrealistic promises and in his personal involvement. But judgment on his leadership has to be suspended until the well is capped and the crisis can be seen as a whole.
President Obama, on the other hand, is not required to cap the well. That's the central leadership problem. There's already a completely unrealistic expectation of what he can do, made worse by not making clear which buck stopped with him. So an unstoppable oil well looks like his failure. His actions seem to be a reaction to George Bush's perceived failure to respond appropriately to Hurricane Katrina. Talk of "kicking ass" and many visits demonstrate him fully engaged, but paradoxically underline how the world's most powerful leader can be just as powerless as the rest of us. For him, as for Tony Hayward, it's too early for judgment, but it really is time to move on from not being George Bush to leading the agenda on offshore drilling and oil dependency. Oh, and by the way, a little less Brit-bashing, please, Mr President.
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