The Oil Spill And Community Leadership

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The calamitous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has brought some big policy issues into sharp focus. What should be the US’s long term energy policy? How can we more effectively protect our environment? What should be the role of off-shore drilling and how can we drill more safely? These are not new questions. Suddenly, however, they are no longer abstract, but painfully real. And we don’t yet have good answers. These issues have been evaded for too long, as the politicians repeatedly kicked the can down the road. We must push our political leaders to address these challenges forthrightly and now. We deserve no less.

But beyond policy-making, there is a second challenge that is testing our mettle – a leadership challenge. And to be frank, we have not done at all well on this score either. Here, I am not talking about the President and our political leaders. I am talking about us, all of us, as a community.

Let’s take stock. The oil spill inflicted (and continues to inflict) huge damage to what we own in common – our natural environment. This in turn has produced devastating economic and human consequences. Shock and outrage were the understandable reactions. A torrent of anger was aimed at BP, the oil company responsible for the spill. BP immediately accepted responsibility, saying it would pay all legitimate claims and devote all possible resources to the clean-up. But as estimates of the damage escalated, the resentment grew.

These are all natural human reactions to shock. But then something momentous happened. Instead of turning this outrage into positive energy, we allowed our anger to turn inward on itself. We began to tear ourselves apart. The rhetoric turned mean. The airwaves were filled with finger-pointing, ridicule, fault-finding, suspicion and demonizing. Everything that was said or done by anyone trying to deal with the problem – from the President on down -- was met with automatic criticism and derision. Objectivity (probably the most important element in a crisis) was ditched. The criticism of President Obama was emblematic. The demand was not that he be more effective, but that he show more anger.

So why does all this matter? For a very simple reason. When a society is hit with a crisis, the real test becomes how well it can muster mutual support and cooperation to overcome the setback. The ability to pull together becomes decisive. The lower the level of cooperation, the lower the odds of success. The literature on corporate turnarounds is replete with examples of this fundamental truth. A company is simply a social system at a micro level. The same factors apply to societies at a macro level. The question we must ask ourselves is why we have not applied these lessons to the way we are responding to the oil spill crisis.

Farmers’ wisdom

Folklore from farmers gives us the best guidance on how to deal effectively with a crisis. If your cow lands in the ditch, then you should follow 3 simple sequential steps:

1) Get the cow out of the ditch

2) Understand how the cow got into the ditch

3) Make sure the cow doesn’t get into the ditch again

Getting the cow out of the ditch must be the first order of business. This can seldom be achieved by a farmer acting alone. It would require cooperation from others, all dedicated to that common cause, all contributing their best ideas, not wasting their energies on blame but focusing on mutual encouragement, speed and effectiveness.

Understanding how the cow got into the ditch (what the US Army calls the “After Action Review”) requires a process of rigorous examination, the preparedness to accept accountability and the ability to learn. It takes a cool head and straight thinking. It is absolutely right that BP is held accountable for its actions and that the victims are compensated. But it is equally important, as it is for the farmer, that the long term value of the learning is bigger than the cost of the mistake.

The third step is preventive. Here the farmer must guard against over-reaction or under-reaction. Most worthwhile endeavors require some element of risk. Preventive actions involve trade-offs between risk and reward. We can never completely eliminate risk. The key is to minimize risk and maximize reward.

These rules of success are deceptively simple, yet crucial. They apply with equal validity to farmers, commercial and non-profit organizations and to society at large. They require that each of us takes on a leadership role. Yes, we are entitled to insist that those above us in the chain of command lead us well. But this alone is not enough. Such a view rests on a false assumption: that effective leadership is solely a matter of leading down, an exclusive responsibility of those at the top; and that those of us below are simply helpless victims of what our leaders alone can and cannot do.

The three-dimensional elements of leadership

The evidence shows that effective leadership has three dimensions: leading up, leading across, and leading down. Leadership is not about power. It is about responsibility. When our society or company is tested by a crisis, it becomes crucial for each of us to take on the responsibility for all three dimensions of leadership. We need first and foremost to commit to the common cause. Based on that commitment, we need to help those at the top lead us better by providing ideas and constructive support, including volunteering. We need to collaborate laterally with those over whom we have no positional authority. And of course, it is vital for us to provide focus and inspiration for those below us in the hierarchy – for the teams we are asked to lead. All great endeavors require this call to action. No one should just sit on the sidelines doing nothing but shout criticisms. Ted Turner famously has a sign on his desk, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

Progress requires critical self-examination. How well are we dealing with the oil spill crisis? It seems to me that based on the above criteria we have fallen short of effective community leadership; not absolutely, but as a matter of balance. We need to recover the right mix of assessing problems and offering solutions, of handing out criticism and recognizing progress, of clarifying what we expect of others and being clear about what we expect of ourselves. David Ogilvy, the founder of the great advertising agency, Ogilvy and Mather, used to make the plea for “divine discontent,” readily pointing out lapses, but always offering a better way.

Our biggest worry must be what a barrage of undiluted and often unfair criticism will do to our collective spirit. Napoleon, the most successful general in modern history was asked which mattered more in the conduct of war, physical or spiritual resources. He reportedly answered, “spiritual resources by a factor of 3 to 1.” He was simply repeating a truth known to every general. When the spirit of an army is gone, the war is lost.

The acid test

When I think about the essence of leadership, I recall an interview I saw on television of a linebacker who had played on the same team as the famous quarterback, Joe Montana, during the glory days of the San Francisco 49ers. He was asked, “What did it feel like to play on the same team as Joe Montana?” His answer, “When Joe was on the team, I played better.”

Therein lies our ultimate test. We are tackling a daunting problem. By virtue of what we personally say and do, is everyone else playing better? Over the long haul, will the value of our collective learning exceed the cost of this mistake? The answer to these questions will depend on our individual leadership effectiveness – above all what we expect of ourselves, not just what we demand of others.


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