Adm. Thad W. Allen is the former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, a position he held until 2010. He has been in charge of several large-scale disasters, including directing all federal response and recovery efforts during Hurricane Katrina. Though he had retired from the Coast Guard, Allen was also the National Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which occurred one year ago today. Allen is now involved with several organizations and teaches at The George Washington University.
How can federal leaders lead and motivate their staff during a crisis?
When I was in Baton Rouge after I took over the entire response for Hurricane Katrina, I asked to assemble as many people as we could in one location so I could talk to them. We got about 2,250 in a big open space, and I got up on a desk with a loud hailer and told everybody I was going down to New Orleans. I told them I would be back as soon as possible and indicated who was in charge in my absence. I explained I was giving them a firm, direct order and said, “You're to treat anyone you come in contact with that's been affected by this storm as if they were a member of your own family, as if they were your brother, mother, father or sister.”
I told them this for two reasons. If you really do that, and you make a mistake, you will have erred on the side of doing too much and that's OK. Also, if you err on the side of doing too much and somebody has a problem with what you did, their problem is not with you, it’s with me, because I gave you the order.
There were people in the room who were openly weeping and there were collective sighs. Nobody had ever told the workforce in very simple terms what was important, what the priorities were, that leadership cared about them and their mission and that leadership was there to back them.
How do you get people to focus on resolving a problem when there are strong emotions involved?
I'm a strong believer in a concept they teach at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University. Professor Leonard Marcus oversees the program, and he has a concept called “meta-leadership.” There are five attributes of a meta-leader that make you successful in a large, complex problem or crisis: How you lead down, how you lead up, how you lead across organizations, your understanding of the event itself, and managing yourself and emotions as a leader.
They use a metaphor “going to the emotional basement.” When you're in a position of responsibility, you cannot spend a lot of time going to the emotional basement. You’ve got to figure out a way to pull yourself out of it, not only for what you need to do as a leader but as an example to the folks that are working for you. I've found that in a crisis the higher up you are, the more you're going to be the one that has to pull yourself and everyone else out of the emotional basement, stabilize what you're doing and focus on what needs to be done. If you can't do that, you're going to get consumed in pathos and everything that's going on and not serve yourself or the country well. You could look to your subordinates or your superior, but there are going to be times where you walk alone, and you need to learn to do that.
How can you learn to be a strong leader?
You don't become a great leader by not leading. You always learn by doing it, which means you are going to make mistakes, and it's going to be trial and error. There are a number of events in your lifetime where you get put under stress; and the earlier you do that, the earlier you come to grips with how you react and how you interact with them intellectually. [Then] do an analysis on yourself and improve your performance for the next time.
Additionally, and I’m stealing somebody else's line here, great leaders are great learners. You need to be curious and a life-long learner, because in a crisis you're going to have to know large amounts of information, be a very fast learner, digest and synthesize knowledge, and turn it into action. You're always going to have to do that in conditions of uncertainty with incomplete information, and it's always going to be that way. But like anything else, the more you practice, the luckier you get.
How do you find the time to be a continuous learner?
You have to find ways to make the time. I take advantage of time that would normally be considered dead time. If I'm flying from one place or another in a helicopter or in transit in a car, I'm either reading or have my laptop out doing research online to get smart on the issues I'm dealing with. You have to create the mechanisms by which you can absorb information. It’s probably individual to each person, but if I don’t do that I've found myself feeling disjointed and distracted. It's almost like a compulsion; I've got to do it or I'm not having a good day.
When I got involved in the oil spill and started understanding the complexity and technical issues that were involved, I reached out for expertise, especially around what was going to be the pivotal role of the blowout preventer, which didn’t perform as advertised. I called Cameron, which made the blowout preventer, and said, ‘I’m coming to Houston; I want to meet with your president and your staff, and you’re going to give me blowout preventer 101 right now.’ And I got on a plane and went.
I’ll go to almost any source to get information. I keep a broad network of friends that I’ve known over the years, and I don’t hesitate to call them up if I think I need to. In fact, there were several instances during the oil spill where I called CEOs of other oil companies and asked them their opinion.
What advice do you have for those leading in the midst of anti-government sentiment?
Looking back, there was great cynicism in the 1960s and 1970s in regard to the Vietnam War and scandals in government like Watergate. You have this ebb and flow of confidence in the government. We understand there is a limit of what we want government to do, but we have high expectations of the performance of government. It's a dynamic tension that's always out there and has to be managed on a daily basis. Now, if you know that's the case, then as far as motivating people and motivating yourself, what you need to ask is: “How can we optimize what we do as a government?” I don't think we do enough of that.
More from On Leadership: