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 were speculations that to date BP only paid out approximately $3. 5B from the $20B claim fund it was forced to set up.
There were also several quotes and reports that showed an out-of-touch executive leadership that showed little remorse, accountability, or courage. Meanwhile, amidst the chaos, key personnel at the JIC showed examples of extraordinary leadership in a crisis situation – especially some situations that were created and exacerbated by the actions of US gov’t and BP. In a crisis situation, it is imperative to quickly assess the situation, stabilize it, and develop a plan to address it (Carroll & Hatakenaka, 2001). It is pivotal for the leader to show the ability think quickly on his feet and take decisive action.
Barbara Voulgaris was an example of a leader who walked into a highly fractured situation and showed key signs of leadership in a crisis situation including the ability to think on her feet where there was no recipe, not oversimplifying the situation, openness to learning along the way, all the mean while creating transparency in plan and action, trying to be proactive, managing perceptions, and finally showing sensitivity and courage (Carroll & Hatakenaka). On May 22, 2010, Barbar Voulgaris arrived at the JIC to lead the inter-agency task of collecting, processing and disseminating accurate and timely information to the media.
Reporting for her 60 day duty call, she walked into a situation that she described as “chaotic” and “insane”. Lacking structured hand-over or staffing protocols, Voulgaris was dumped into the situation without any turn-over of previous process or procedures. She was left to manage a highly charged and emotionally stressful environment where recruits from all over the country with differing backgrounds, experiences, maturity, and willingness were thrust at her various times per day.
She skillfully assessed the experience and skillset of the incoming barrage and diverted them to where they would best fit, be most productive, and where they would best represent the USCG. Voulgaris and fellow JIC members displayed commitment, empathy and compassion in their work. Public Affairs Chief Petty Officer Marguerite DeMartino explained that while she had been part of managing calls and communications during major crisis situations in the past, this time she was especially sensitive to the voices and plights of the poor people who were on the line making highly emotional calls and pleas.
Not only were there compassion and empathy towards the public, Voulgaris also demonstrated commitment to the hardworking people at the JIC. Although she felt chest pains and was ordered to go to the doctor and take a day off, she felt guilty because she thought she was letting someone down. Similarly, working with Halvorson, Voulgaris raised concerns about the lack of fixed working scheduled and clear organizational structure. They then proceeded to create a personnel list and a rotation schedule.
They cared about the overworked staff who were sprinting under high levels of stress and “here for the long haul. ” The brand image of BP was not the only one that was at risk in this high media coverage situation; the USCG was also under a watchful eye. “Leaders in a crisis are forced to operate in full public view, with the media and others positioned to report and critique their actions” (James & Woothen, 2005). Especially with the widespread propagation of bloggers and social media outlets, Voulgaris was faced with dealing with a media that was changing with the time.
To manage the perceptions of a changing demographic, she assigned staff to specifically handling the social media circles and she countered rumors and speculation with widespread dissemination of facts and figures via the same media channels. As a leader she was staying agile with the needs and situations, and providing solutions that fit the need. Voulgaris was also acutely attuned to the need for her “employees to feel safe in their work environments” (James & Woothen, 2005). Voulgaris approached a new associate and informed the associate of the need for her to work alone in the facility during the evening to answer the phones.
The reservist appeared panicked, and Voulgaris made a mental note to address the situation to create a safe work environment for her team. Voulgaris knew that “when management appears to be unresponsive dissatisfaction spreads” (Carroll & Hatakenaka, 2001). Voulgaris leaned on her ability to “read non-verbal signs” which confirms her leadership ability in a crisis environment (Carroll & Hatakenaka, 2001). Nearing the end of her rotation, Voulgaris did not want to leave to her successor the same chaotic and insane situation that lacked organization and structure.
Instead, she developed a standard operating procedure (SOP) that allowed the JIC to gain from her experience and learn from her mistakes/successes. She also showed concerned about the JIC being more proactive with the critical communication rather than constantly being reactive. Voulgaris represented an example of an effective leader in a crisis situation whose commitment, courage, and compassion working along side her people skills, cability to think on her feet, and ability to read situations/people – all of which lead to an effective management of a critical function during an emotionally charged environmental catastrophe.
Carroll, J. S. , & Hatakenaka, S. (2001, Spring). Driving Organizational Change in the Midst of Crisis. MIT Sloan Management Review , 70-78. James, E. H. , & Woothen, L. P. (2005). How to Display Competence in Times of Crisis. Organizational Dynamics , 34 (2), 141-152. Whitehouse. gov (2010). http://www. whitehouse. gov/the-press-office/weekly-address-president-obama-establishes-bipartisan-national-commission-bp-deepwa Wiener, Aaron. (2010). “Obama to open Atlantic coast to off-shore drilling”. http://washingtonindependent. com/80971/obama-to-open-atlantic-coast-to-offshore-drilling