Lessons From the Gulf Spill

It’s hard to avoid.  You see it everywhere.  Pictures of the massive Gulf oil spill are plastered all over television, print, and of course the Internet.   For most Americans, this is probably  the largest disaster of their lives, and it is truly painfull to watch.  As a resident of a Gulf state, the spill takes on a greater personal urgency than it would have otherwise.  While we won’t know the true magnitude of this disaster for many years, if ever, there are some things that we can glean now to help us in our personal and professional lives.  Truly, the most dismal failure is the failure to learn from failure.  Whether it be your own failure or someone else’s, there are always lessons to be learned.

I’m not going to take this space to talk about what could or should have been done or to lay blame.  We don’t need another blog talking about that .  Instead, I’m going to talk about lessons that we as leaders can learn from the oil spill in the Gulf.

Problems can be rolled into opportunities if we are ready.  For example, at a previous employer, we had laid out a road map for a massive upgrade project.  We had approval and a time line.  Because of a need that arose (problem) unexpectedly, we were able to begin implementing our plan a full two months ahead of schedule (opportunity).

  1. Take Responsibility.  Early on, we heard some bickering about whether this was BP’s problem or Deep Water’s problem.  For BP, it really didn’t matter.  The perception was that this was BP’s problem and BP needed to take care of it.  This was an opportunity for BP to step up and be visible and involved in the solution whether it really was BP’s problem at the core or not.  Stepping up to be part of the solution instead of playing the blame game builds credibility.  Start working on a solution now.  Deciding who, if anyone,  was at fault can wait until after the problem is solved.
  2. Be transparent.  Hiding things or the perception that you aren’t laying all of your cards on the table builds distrust.  Being honest and admitting you don’t have a full handle on the situation or know all the answers may not be the most comforting thing to the people you are communicating with, but it will build trust if the people around you believe that you are working diligently and you are competent.  Competency doesn’t necessarily mean having all the answers, it often means having the ability to find the answers.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  This point ties in very closely with being transparent.  If the problem is too big for you or outside of your expertise, bring in somebody who can help you.  Bringing in help doesn’t mean you are weak or incompetent.  It means you are human.  In this day of specialization, nobody can be an expert at everything.  Sometimes you’ll have to lean on expertise outside of your department or organization.  Failure to know when you are over your head can lead to costly delays in solving the problem and it quickly eats away at your credibility.
  4. Be proactive.  Don’t wait for the flames to be kissing your eyelids before you grab a fire extinguisher.  Get involved with solving the problem while it’s still small if at all possible.  It’s a lot less messy and a lot less expensive.  It also gives you the opportunity to be a hero.
  5. Stand up and take your beating.  Everyone makes mistakes.  It’s part of the human condition.  If you messed up or an area of your responsibility messed up, then sometimes you’ve got to accept that and throw yourself on the mercy of the court.  We’ve become experts at trying to wring our hands of the blame.  Build credibility by ‘fessing up to it’ and dealing with the repercussions.  If you’ve handled the previous four points, then you should have an opportunity to build credibility with this one.  Nobody likes a weasel, and integrity is becoming so rare that people can be quite taken back when they see it in action.  It may be painful in the short term, but leaders must be long term thinkers.  Point 5a here would be to make sure you learn from your crisis so you won’t have to stand up and take another beating.  For taking too many beatings will surely lead to resume polishing.  Smart leadership learns from its mistakes and the mistakes of others.  Wise leadership puts that acquired knowledge into action.

Problems are going to happen, that’s a given.  Be ready for problems, learn everything you can when problems arise, use your new knowledge to eliminate future problems before they happen, and whenever possible turn your problems into opportunity.

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