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President Obama’s War on Oil through the High Impact Leadership Model

June 21, 2010
Oil and Water
Oil + Water = Leadership

Images of D-Day and storming the beaches of Normandy creep into my thoughts.  The air is cold, thick with fog and the scent of fear, as American and British Allies lie in wait within a secured bunker, ready to fire upon the enemy approaching from the sea (actually, I’m sitting in my new recliner in my air-conditioned living room.  And I know I have the stories of WWII backward, but let’s run with it).  Tonight, we await word from our Commander-in-Chief; this time, we are on the defensive, anticipating the command to fire as the black, crude enemy advances upon the land we occupy.  And then, 18 minutes later, the President has declared it: the War on Oil has begun.

In fact, the War was thrust upon us two full months ago with an explosion that ripped through what many of us had considered to be a safe, functioning, productive “Oil Defense System” in the form of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.  We were not worried; in fact, many of us were in ignorant bliss.  BP was an ally, albeit at an arm’s length (40 miles off the coast of Louisiana); helping us to contain and harvest one of the most necessary elements of our economy.  We knew of no eminent danger.  But we made a critical error in judgment by trusting that foreign power, as their safety measures proved to be no match for the angry, bloated, volatile mass of Oil lurking in the abyss.  Now, we fight against both BP and the Oil they released into the wild ocean, already attacking our beaches and rivers.  The volume of Oil’s army, the depth of the well and the breadth of the slick’s reach; the invasion is an epidemic caused by the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.

But have no fear!  Our President has a plan for “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.”  BP is now under our command, and even though the combined power of our weapons has not slowed the onslaught of Oil (we have “tested the limits of human technology”), this three step strategy to contain, remove, and stop forever the evil of Oil is destined to work!  After all, this is the U S of A!  We’ve even been to the moon!

Phew… Okay, back to reality.  Glad it only took 18 minutes.

Perception is Reality

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to make fun of the President or his hyperbolic narrative.  And as an unabashed animal lover, the oil spill makes me sick so I’m glad he’s stepping up.  I just wanted to emphasize the calculated, aggressive, and violent verbiage President Obama used Tuesday night.  His goal is to manage the crisis.  Whether this approach serves him well or not, and more importantly, whether he leads us out of it, we shall soon see.

I think the criticism, confusion, and disagreement over how well Obama has handled the issue stems from uncertainty as to whether the oil spill is a presidential issue in the first place.  What is he supposed to do?  Now that the problem is so big, what can he do to fix it himself?  Is it President Obama’s job to oversee the regulatory agency?  Is it his job to make sure BP was (and is) adhering to those state and federal regulations?  Is it his job to clean up the oil?  Maybe yes, maybe no to all of those questions… And as we well know, perception is reality.  I think Obama could use some help from the High Impact Leadership Model (HILM) to illustrate his efforts and effectiveness as a leader.

Let’s measure his efforts against the backdrop of a few competencies, responsibilities, and skills of the HILM, which is the result of an ongoing study by Linkage and Warren Bennis to identify a framework that differentiates superior leaders from average ones.

Creating the Vision – The Leadership Responsibility of anticipating demands and seizing opportunities while providing meaning, context, and motivation.

The first issues at hand when it comes to his leadership during the oil spill crisis are vision and visibility.  I am certain that President Obama intended to address both last night.  He had to respond to the public perception that he is not involved enough.  Maybe he hasn’t rolled up his sleeves and cleaned oil off any birds yet (or filled sandbags), but he used his first Presidential Address from the Oval Office to speak to this issue.  That is a LOT of political capital.  So now we know: yes, this is a big deal, he knows it is a big deal, and it is now unquestionably a Presidential Issue.  His war story is Creating the Vision – he has personified the oil spill in order to rally the troops against it.

Systems Thinking – The Leadership Competency of connecting processes, events, and structures.

Obama also transitioned the story into a larger-scale image, one that reminds me of Kennedy’s vision and relentless drive (no doubt, his intent) to put a man on the moon.  Political agenda or true beliefs aside, he described his mission to reduce America’s dependency on fossil fuels and outlined the steps toward progress – some already underway.  By incorporating the disaster recovery plan into this big-picture image, he illustrated the leadership competency of Systems Thinking.

Strategic Thinking – The Leadership Skill of using powerful frameworks and approaches for diagnosing and anticipating competitive threats and taking action on the strategic concerns of your organization.

The President made it abundantly clear that “we,” meaning the White House, Congress, the military, and the citizens that make up this great country, are going to hold the responsible parties accountable.  We are going to get past pulling the levers behind the scenes, hoping things will pan out for the best, and into active cleanup, recovery and restoration, and prevention.  Those are the three steps to his battle plan.  This is Strategic Thinking.

Creating the Organization – The Leadership Responsibility of building and developing the structure for high potentials.

Obama also outlined a plan to effectively collect the right people and talents to carry out this plan.  Included are 30,000 volunteers, 17,000 National Guard members, a few hundred workers, a half-dozen Governors, a couple of Appointees, etc., not to mention millions more constituents and stakeholders.  He is Creating the Organization, building a huge structure with mighty goals, and the Initial Public Offering began with his speech last night.

Focused Drive – The Leadership Competency of focusing on a goal and harnessing your energy in order to meet that goal.

“The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.” – Barack Obama.  That sounds like something Nando Parrado would say.

Producing Results – The Leadership Responsibility of setting goals, monitoring progress, and driving flawless execution to achieve results in a competitive world.

That one’s easy.  He must Produce Results, and this will be measured and scrutinized for decades (especially if the cleanup takes that long).

I’m sure that there are a lot of things that the President feels we “can’t afford not to do.”  One thing HE could not afford to do was to ignore the “talking heads” and stay behind the scenes (if he was, in fact, there to begin with).  Public perception made this a Presidential Issue, and he has responded.  Now, he has to find people with not only the right experience, but also the right perspective, to carry out his mission for our country.  As he said last night, “Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us.”  That is the ultimate responsibility of a leader; not just to do great things, but to identify, develop, and grow those who will inspire others to do great things.  We could evaluate him against all 18 components of the High Impact Leadership Model, and debate endlessly as to whether he is an effective leader.

Lessons in Leadership

There are two recent examples of similar leadership challenges I can cite: Toyota’s safety concerns and steroids in baseball.  The initial response to both (by executives and commissioners) was to cover eyes and ears; a primitive form of denial – “it’s not happening, couldn’t happen here!”  Then, stage two of denial, “It’s not our fault!”  Finally, acceptance and action…albeit tardy and only questionably-effective.

I will give the President credit – I have seen no denial here.  And you won’t see that on the High Impact Leadership Model, either!

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