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It will be months, if not years, before the full impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill will be fully understood — environmentally, commercially, and politically. In this respect, and the fact that the disaster will have a deep effect on the Unites States psyche, President Obama was correct to draw comparisons with the situation in the Gulf of Mexico and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That said, it is hard to draw any more meaningful comparisons between the two disasters — unless we consider the glaring differences in the quality of leadership displayed during the last two months. What have we learned?
Let’s look at 9/11 first. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, leaders in the United States and around the world united to offer an inspiring, reflective, and constructive response to the disaster. Recognition of the enormity of the tragedy was followed by restraint, as leaders paused and reflected before taking action. New York Mayor Giuliani in particular understood the importance of leading in a manner that improved, rather than exacerbated, an extremely difficult and tense situation. Ordinary people responded in extraordinary ways, while offers of help and support were accepted with good grace. When the work of restoration began, it was done collectively, without blame or recriminations. There were many examples of good leadership during and after 9/11.
What a different picture we have seen during the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. The behaviours and attitudes of leaders have been disappointing at best and irresponsible at worst. In this crisis, even some basic elements of leadership have been flouted or misunderstood by the key players.
[Here are two of the five lessons she cites and then discusses.]
Most obviously culpable and reprehensible are the leaders of BP, who are ultimately responsible for this environmental disaster. It appears that CEO Tony Hayward presided over an organisational culture that sanctioned extreme risk-taking, ignored expert advice, overlooked warnings about safety issues and hid facts. Their failure to respond to the disaster with sufficient speed and attention was a direct consequence of this flawed culture. Lesson 1: Crises expose dysfunctional organisational cultures.
With its army of media advisers and PR professionals, BP made the mistake of trying to spin its way out of this crisis rather than tackling it head on. Tony Hayward should have realised — or been advised — that there are some crises that cannot be spun. Instead, he has done untold damage to BP’s reputation with his gaffes and apparent inability to understand public reaction to his comments. He appears weak, petty, defensive and lacking a grip on the situation. Not surprisingly, he has been moved aside to make way for Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, whose gravitas is unquestionable, but who appears equally clueless in the spotlight. Lesson 2: Leaders must recognise when a crisis can’t be spun.
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These are just a few thoughts about the situation unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico and some of the parallels that can be drawn for leaders. What are your thoughts? Do you have any constructive suggestions? And if you could send one message to the leaders in this crisis, what would it be? As ever, I look forward to, and appreciate, your views.
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Gill Corkindale is an executive coach and writer based in London, focusing on global management and leadership. She was formerly management editor of the Financial Times.