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Who's in Charge?
A few weeks ago I wrote of how too often it takes a crisis to wake us up to systemic issues. By ignoring the warning signs of impending disaster we dramatically increase the magnitude of the downside risk. Just because we made it another day without a crisis doesn't mean there is little risk in the system. Oft times it simply means we are playing a game of high stakes poker without knowing that we are "all in". This is a very dangerous situation as evidenced by all the recent crises we have witnessed, none more prominent than BP's, which resulted from their warped culture and the regulatory agency's ineptitude.
What has been equally disconcerting is the poor leadership exhibited by all involved since the crisis. Here we sit roughly two months into this debacle and still it is unclear who is calling the shots on the ground. Pointing fingers is not leadership. Showing outrage is not leadership. Unrehearsed interviews by those subject to verbal foibles are not leadership. Deliberately underestimating the gravity of the situation is not leadership. Not even attempting to measure the scope of the problem until 55 days into the crisis is not leadership. Having multiple voices speak to the situation is not leadership. Sending a bevy of cabinet secretaries and admirals to address the situation with no clear statement as to who is in charge is not leadership. Ineffective integration among federal authorities, state authorities, local authorities, the companies and private citizens is not leadership.
Crisis leadership demands quick, decisive action starting with an assessment of the scale of the problem and then designing a command structure that can address it. There must be a point person who coordinates and integrates. There must be a spokesperson from which all communication flows into and out of. There must be a sincere desire to work together to solve the problem at hand and save the accusations for later. Leadership is about getting the job done. It is not about trying to look like you are getting the job done. The former approach gets results; the latter only scores political points.
As bad as the BP situation is (and it is beyond bad in so many ways) poor management has exacerbated it. There were six companies represented on the rig when the rig exploded and no one was sure who was in charge. What a mess. This lack of clarity in leadership persists today in the ad hoc system of government and private stakeholders that has been pieced together void of any overarching vision. The structure is still not in place to get ahead of the situation. Two months into it and it is still out of control. Yes, this is a very difficult situation. Yes, we know that no drilling should have been allowed until a system was in place to make sure that if a worst case scenario happened, at depth, it could be contained. Yes, we know there should have been proper oversight. Yes, we have the benefit of hindsight. But we also have the benefit of living through Katrina and the Exxon Valdez. Yet we still fail.
Leadership demands that we pay attention. We must learn from the mistakes of others so that we improve. Our leaders are so of the moment and preoccupied with today's events that unless it is a crisis it doesn't get their attention. As a result, they conveniently ignore impending ones. This is a systemic challenge that can only be met by great leaders.
Someone must be in charge. More accurately, someone competent must be in charge if things are to work well. My hope is that our leaders learn from this situation and remember its lessons.