Accountability Lessons, Oil Spill Ethics, and Obama’s Leadership Failure

President Obama has shown his inexperience and unfamiliarity with executive leadership ethics in many ways since he took office, but none are likely to be more damaging than his unease with accountability. He had better learn fast.

It is not surprising that so many mayors lose their jobs as the result of blizzards. Budget limitations guarantee that a city’s snow removal capabilities are set to the most likely levels of snowfall and not the extraordinary, once-in-a-decade event, yet when that once-in-a-decade event arrives, it will not do for the mayor to blame the budget or the weather or the City Council or the lack of a magic wand. The public doesn’t want to hear any of that: they want to be able to drive to work. They want the leader to fix the problem, because that’s what leaders are supposed to do. If a leader can’t fix the problem, he had better look as if he is doing everything possible and impossible to try. And he had better make it clear that he understands and accepts that it is his job.

This may seem unfair, but it is right. It is right because problems have to be fixed, serious problems have to be fixed quickly, assigning blame to other people, God, Fate, or bad luck doesn’t fix problems, and it is a leader’s ultimate responsibility to fix them.

The cataclysmic Gulf of Mexico oils spill has now been going on for a month, as British Petroleum has failed to cap an underwater gusher that can be watched as it belches tons of oil into the water 24 hours a day. There may be, in fact, no way to stop it—that isn’t the issue. It is certainly true that many, many institutions, companies, human beings and fate share responsibility for the fact that the disaster occurred; as Herman Kahn frequently observed, unpredictable contingencies always are the product of bad management and bad luck. That isn’t the issue either.  The issue is that no matter who else may be to blame, the President of the United States is ultimately responsible and accountable for any disaster that occurs while he is in power. His duty is to accept this, and act accordingly.

President Obama has not. Astoundingly, he has made many of the same leadership errors that turned Hurricane Katrina into the tipping point disaster for President Bush, and any Democrat that argues the two disasters are different in this respect is both biased and blind, and you can tell them I said so. The details are different; the leadership mistakes are the same. The main difference that I can see is that nobody has claimed, as Kanye West did on live TV during the Katrina aftermath , to be quickly supported in his slander by mainstream media pundits, that the President’s failure to address the disaster effectively was intentional and motivated by racism. No, Rush Limbaugh is arguing instead that President Obama wants the oil to cause as much damage as possible so he can justify destroying private enterprise. The mainstream media isn’t adopting this line, of course because 1) Kanye West is more reliable and objective than Rush Limbaugh 2) It would believe anything bad about George Bush, or 3) It basically is a cheering section for Obama. Pick one.

Other than that, however, the leadership failures of Obama and Bush are very similar. Obama’s are less forgivable, perhaps, because the Bush fiasco is there for any smart, Harvard Law School educated President to study and learn from, as well as equally valuable lesson from earlier Presidents— Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower—who accepted responsibility for disasters not of their own making and won the public’s trust and respect as a result of their responses to them.

The core ethical value involved are accountability—the obligation and willingness to accept responsibility and to  account for one’s actions—and trust, which flows from accountability.  All of the conduct that follows works to undermine accountability and trust, when national catastrophes demand that they be at their highest. For Student Leader Obama, let’s review the lessons.

Lesson 1: Stay on the job. Katrina hit while President Bush was on vacation, and he knew it would hit when he was on vacation. He stayed on vacation during the early days of the disaster. It doesn’t matter that in reality. a president never is truly on vacation, or that he can do exactly as much from a Holiday Inn as he can from the White House. Leadership requires accountability and trust, and staying “on vacation” suggests that the man at the top is passing the buck to others, that he doesn’t care enough, and that he is Absent Without Leave. So what does Obama do? He takes no one but two “vacations’ during the oil spill. He travels for a political fundraiser. Lesson failed.

Lesson 2: Don’t try to con us. Bush’s worst moment during the Katrina crisis was his cavalier compliment (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!”) to lazy, dim bulb F.E.M.A head Michael Brown, who was neither qualified for his job, engaged in the task, nor competent. This fooled nobody,and it reinforced a public impression that the President was either insulting our intelligence or didn’t recognize ineptitude when it was staring him in the face. Obama’s approach was different, but the result has been similar. Some genius in the White House decided that the key was to spin the situation and to send the message that the Administration was fully engaged and on the job “from Day One,” do it sent hoards of officials and spokespersons onto the talk shows and behind microphones reciting almost identical, obviously scripted talking points saying “the Administration was on the scene from Day One.” First, anyone paying attention could tell this was not candor, but an effort to snow the public. Second, it didn’t seem true: there was little evidence of any substantive action by the administration on Days One, Two, and quite a bit later.  Third, it wasn’t true, at least to an extent that mattered. Lesson failed.

Lesson 3: Go to the scene yourself. It doesn’t matter that there’s not a thing you can do. Leaders can’t take charge of what they haven’t seen. Bush recognized this in his “bull horn moment” at Ground Zero, but either forgot it during Katrina or got terrible advice from his “brain,” Karl Rove (who for a brain did an awful lot of very dumb things, it seems—but I digress), and treated New Orleans to his infamous, detached, “fly-over.” Incredibly, Obama has made the same error, though he now, a month late, going to check out the Gulf. Even in the age of the internet, you can’t always lead by remote control. Accepting accountability for the problem means physically connecting to the problem, and the closer the better. Lesson failed.

Lesson 4: Don’t blame others, even if they deserve it. There will be plenty of time for blame, and consequences. This is one area where Obama has done worse than Bush, who was prevented from publically blaming some outrageously negligent and incompetent parties for political reasons. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans was criminally incompetent in his preparations for Katrina, but he was also black, popular, and on the TV every day pleading for the Feds to rescue his citizens, many of whom were in their plight because of him. Governor Blanco of Louisiana was only marginally less culpable than Nagin, but she was a woman, and trying to save her stricken citizens, however ineptly. The Army Corps of Engineers bungled their role in keeping New Orleans safe, but most of their errors were many years old. The City of New Orleans and its citizens knew that it was in a hurricane zone and has unusual vulnerability, but somehow hadn’t developed an effective evacuation and disaster response plan when the hurricane finally hit. You can’t criticize the victims in a human tragedy of this magnitude, however, so Bush didn’t point fingers even where they deserved to be pointed. Good move, and whether or not it was his motive, it was Presidential. President Obama, however, apparently misunderstood the lesson, and decide that an international oil company was a perfect target for blame-casting, especially since, after all, it was to blame. Wrong! A leader blaming anyone else in a crisis looks like an attempt to pass the buck; so does appointing a commission to investigate what went wrong (also known as “assigning blame”) before the problem has been solved. Lesson failed.

Lesson 5: Forget about protocol, politics, hurt feelings and previous allocations of responsibility, and do something. This is the most important lesson of all, and the one that natural leaders understand intuitively. Don’t be afraid of making the problem worse, though that is always a possibility. F.D.R.’s New Deal measures, many economists believe, actually lengthened the Great Depression, but it doesn’t matter: if he hadn’t been perceived as trying everything under the sun to solve the problem, the U.S. might have descended into chaos, violence, riots and even revolution. Prudence is a virtue, but when all about you are losing their heads and blaming it on you, you, Mr. Leader, has better give them more than calm, cool, and prudence to hang their hats on. Bush was hamstrung by red tape between national government agencies and the state, but he should have sliced through the red tape, called in the ‘copters, troops and any other resources that would respond to his orders, rescued the people trapped in the Superdome, and sorted our the legal issues later. For President Obama to leave the oil spill response solely to a foreign corporation when it is wrecking American livelihoods, finances and property is the epitome of leadership tone-deafness. He should gather all the best minds from the worlds of engineering, minerology, environmentalism, chemistry and physics, plus our most facile inventors, thinkers and problem solvers from every field, even those that are non-scientific, and hold around the clock meetings in search of new ideas. Tell BP that it is now working in partnership with the United States Government, whether it likes it or not.

This is the “Armageddon” scenario, for real. It is imperative to solve a deadly problem that has never been solved before. It doesn’t help, and doesn’t inspire confidence, to make speeches saying, “Just get rid of the asteroid!”—or “Plug the hole!” Lesson failed.

Whether the latest BP fix works or not, President Obama should immediately announce that he is taking complete responsibility for the spill, will devote every available waking hour to stopping it, and be fully accountable for the results. Yes: there is great political risk in doing this, but greater political risk in not doing it. He is our leader, and accountability is his job. It is a lesson he needs to learn, and the sooner the better.

10 thoughts on “Accountability Lessons, Oil Spill Ethics, and Obama’s Leadership Failure

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Accountability Lessons, Oil Spill Ethics, and Obama’s Leadership Failure « Ethics Alarms --

  2. Well… apparently the BP fix did work. At least, temporarily. And Obama DID say he was responsible. However: 1) BP (the enviro-friendly oil company) failed to have a plan just in case something like this were to happen, which is inexcusable when you consider that they were drilling at geologic and oceanic depths never before attempted. 2) A leader’s saying he’s responsible means little unless he’s actually held to account in the first place… or expects to be. Contrariwise; Bush was blasted over Katrina by the press and the Congress, while the utter incompetance of Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco garnered barely a whisper; despite the fact that both failed to respond to Bush’s inquiries for assistance until the hurricane virtually came ashore… then dropped everything in his lap.

    • They are optimistic about the mud-solution, but I’ll hold off on a “Mission Accomplished” float for a while. Your first point is the one that amazes me: how can you drill there and NOT have a way to stop something like this ready? It’s beyond irresponsible—it’s insane.

      • It seems to me that they should have a pipe outside of /encompassing the oil pipeline that they could plug in the case where the oil pipeline becomes damaged.

          • If I can claim this idea free and clear as my own invention, then I hearby release it to the public domain to be used and implemented royalty free by any company that would use it to save our natural environment from potential catastrophic oil spills.

  3. Frankly, it amazes me that I am only your second response to this brilliant post on leadership. Whether it was about Katrina, the BP disaster, or a meteor hurtling toward Earth, what you have to say about Presidential leadership should be read by every person who aspires to any kind of leadership — public or private, and at any level.

    Obama’s claim that his Administration was there from “Day One” is to me an egregious lie. Unless, of course, he chooses to name each and every person he had “on the ground” helping to solve the problem. He won’t, of course, because it would be an embarrassment. Instead, he will continue to choose to point fingers, fire (or maybe not) administration officials, and between fund raisers, vacations, state dinners with dubious allies, meetings at least twice a day on the probably death of the death of the Gulf of Mexico, and discuss this dilemma with his daughter while he shaves.

    Sure, blame British Petroleum, the company that successfully drills offshore around the world. Did their profit motive cause this disaster? Perhaps. Did Obama’s willingness to let them solve this problem on their own — when he could gather in 12 hours the best minds in the entire world to try to solve the problem –have a negative impact on BP’s effectiveness? Who knows? What I DO know is that I saw NO leadership from Obama for more than 30 days, except for finger-pointing, fake angst, two meetings a day on the subject, and conversations with his daughter…

    What do you suppose Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Ronald Reagan, et al. would have done? Now THEY understood leadership.

  4. Pingback: Ethics Hero: Chris Matthews « Ethics Alarms

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.