Leadership in the Gulf: What’s Needed Now

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on BNET Insight | BNET Blog

The political crisis emerging from the Deepwater Horizon disaster now threatens to eclipse the environmental calamity itself. Between the handling of the situation, our collective response to it, and the leadership challenges to come, there’s a lot here to psychoanalyze. Let’s take a look.

What are the underlying psychological forces at play? Deep down, the massive spill makes us feel profoundly helpless, and there are few human emotions as intolerable as that. While we’re not entirely helpless, of course, the magnitude of the spill  combined with the technological challenges of stanching the flow of oil and cleaning up afterward  feels overwhelming.

The environmental impact is often compared, unfavorably, to the Exxon Valdez incident. Destructive as the Valdez spill was, there was a finite amount of oil contained in the doomed vessel, as opposed to the undersea oil reserve in the Gulf, which feels bottomless. The political right has also characterized the disaster as President Obama’s Katrina. While he and his administration appear to be taking all the appropriate actions, the linkage to Katrina implies that his response was callously inadequate. Calling it a Katrina also suggests that the spill is a natural, as opposed to man-made, disaster. Deepwater Horizon was decidedly not natural, but it is precisely the sense that man has messed with Mother Nature  that we’ve poked a big hole in the Earth  that makes it feel so apocalyptic.

As the investigation into the causes of the disaster and the handling of its aftermath proceed, we will continue to see the predictable human tendency to cast blame. Pointing the finger at Obama is absurd (though not surprising), but exclusive culpability can’t be laid on BP’s hapless CEO Tony Hayward, either. Such scapegoating is natural, even emotionally satisfying at times, but no more valid than trying to pin the blame for the Great Recession on a single authority figure. Creating and then blaming a villain is ultimately a dangerous way of dealing with uncertainty, serving more to bind the anxiety that arises from helplessness rather than trying to accurately understand root causes and assign responsibility.

Only a more holistic, systemic view gets at the complexity of such problems. We need to consider multiple simultaneous causes, which could include: a lack of role clarity or proper authority among senior executives and regulatory officials; rapid chains of action and inaction before and after the blowout; broken lines of communication; cultural factors within the oil industry and in our society at large that permit dangerous policies and decisions to go unchecked; failures of leadership that reinforce maladaptive behaviors; and so on. This has been true of the financial crisis, of Katrina, and of the space shuttle disasters  not to mention the everyday problems of hospital errors, product failures, and other systemic breakdowns.

So what should leaders do in the face of such complexity, and how are ours doing? The best leaders in times of disaster are straight with us, communicating clearly and frequently about the nature of the situation and the efforts to fix it. Obama is doing that part well. But leaders also need to mirror the emotions of the day, without going overboard, and this is where Obama is falling short. His cool, cerebral approach may be reassuring to some (it works for me), but to others he feels distressingly distant and devoid of the nurturing reassurance that so many seem to need, despite the fact that there isn’t much to be reassuring about yet. Exhortations for Obama to show more emotion are futile, though, as the expression of feelings isn’t something that can be turned on and off at will. I suspect he’s one of those leaders who gets even more calm and focused during a crisis, showing even less spontaneous emotion than he might otherwise. We want our leaders to make us believe things are under control, even when they’re not, in the same way that we want our parents to make us feel everything will be all right, even when they’re not so sure.

Obama’s increasingly punitive, angry attitude towards the oil industry is also an understandable but unfortunate response to the public’s demands for heads to roll. It may make us feel better to see such demonstrations of punitive authority, but it doesn’t do much good. Punishment has its role, but it’s rarely the best way to teach a lesson about behavior or change a flawed system. Punishing a kid too much just teaches him to fear and hate his parents, and punishing the oil industry in the middle of this crisis probably complicates its ability to cooperate. There’s plenty of time for punishment after the crisis ends and all the facts are in.

Similarly, while some say that BP’s Hayward should be fired, this strikes me as a terrible idea right now. A leaderless BP, followed by the inevitable transition period before a new CEO could get up to speed and take charge, would be even worse for the bleeding Gulf of Mexico than a team led by Mr. Hayward. A bumbling leader, he apparently was as caught off guard by the disaster as the rest of us, and in the end he may not survive the withering criticism about his repeated gaffes and missteps. But for now, let him try his best to do his job.

Complex problems often require complex thinking and multifaceted solutions. They demand emotionally attuned leaders who can tolerate high degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty. We need that kind of leadership to plug the hole and clean up the mess, especially if we want to learn from the experience and prevent another Deepwater Horizon  or at least respond better next time.