Leadership in a Crisis Situation

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On April 20, 2010 the Deep Water Horizon drilling unit operated by British Petroleum (BP) experienced a catastrophic explosion, resulting in 11 casualties, 15 serious injuries, and an uncontrolled discharge of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the next 3 months. Countless number of livelihoods that relied on the gulf’s ecosystem was indelibly marred by the environmental disaster, costing billions in damages that are still being accounted more than 2 years later. During the crisis, many differing accounts of leadership emerged – US Gov’t, BP Execs, and the JIC provide 3 contrasting portrayals of leadership in crisis situation that illustrate the importance and impacts of preparation, perception, communication, and courage.

The US gov’t demonstrated a mixed-bag of leadership attributes and failings amidst the crisis, highlighted on one hand by its quick decisive action and its desire to learn from the situation (Carroll & Hatakenaka, 2001). However, on the other hand, it showed lack of preparation and poor damage containment (James & Wooten, 2005). Within hours of the accident, the president had heard the news, rescue personnel dispatched, and plan to establish a command center was put forth. On-scene coordinator was promptly named and inter-agency operations and planning structure was set up within days. However, the responsive actions were offset by the lack of a clear plan and process for critical communications, lack of structure allowing efficient inter-agency cooperation, lack of proper staffing protocol, and mishandling of BP as it failed to quickly stem the oil leak, while millions of gallons leaked into the gulf over a 3 months period. US gov’t should have been better prepared. Safety issues and accidents aboard an off-shore drilling rig is not an unforeseen situation. In fact, recent events similar in consequence (Exxon Valdez) and location (Hurricane Katrina) provided the US gov’t opportunities for better preparation & damage control for similar future crisis situations. Proper protocols/plans and perhaps even better technologies for oil collection/clean-up could have been devised. Yet, when the crisis began, the gov’t was in the midst of planning to actually expand the off-shore drilling in US oceans – without the necessary preparation and protocol (Weiner, 2010). And although on May 22, 2010 the gov’t ultimately showed its desire to learn from its mistakes by setting up a new commission to investigate the BP spill & prevent/mitigate future spills (Whitehouse.gov, 2010) – it can also be asserted that such commission should have already been in place.

BP execs on the other hand displayed little redeeming qualities in its lack of leadership through the crisis. Although it had a chance to show contrition, accountability, courage, and compassion, it failed to do so. Prior to the incident, the Deep Water Horizon rig operated for seven years without severe injury to its 126 workers. The rig included safety devices (back flow preventer), which should have circumvented the catastrophic event, but the device failed to activate. Due to these facts, the accident could have been construed as a sudden crisis, not caused by negligence, and thus affording some empathy for BP from the public (James & Wooten, 2005). In fact, BP had the chance to do what Johnson & Johnson did so admirably in its crisis management by showing contrition, taking accountability, being transparent, and demonstrating compassion & commitment to the thousands whose lives were affected by the tragedy. Unfortunately, BP execs failed to show such leadership. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward was cited as being evasive in his congressional hearings and BP execs in various public settings pointed fingers at others as the key culprit. BP garnered terribly negative perception from the public who characterized BP’s ‘too little, too late’ actions as uncompassionate, ingenuous, and evasive. Businesses complained about BP’s claim payout – slow or missing – and there...
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