Running a rescue: Thad Allen on the BP oil spill, Haiti earthquake, the next big disaster — and how MIT Sloan helped him lead

Admiral Thad Allen, MIT Sloan Fellow '89

Thad Allen, MIT Sloan Fellow ’89 and the former National Incident Commander for the unified response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, will speak at the MIT Sloan Alumni Weekend, May 13-15, 2011, which is part of Building the Future, a school-wide event that includes the dedication of MIT Sloan’s new building and the Joan and William A. Porter 1967 Center for Management Education.

During his return to campus, Admiral Allen discussed his remarkable career in a wide-ranging interview:

Q: How do you look back on the year you spent at MIT Sloan?

A: One special thing about Sloan is that it gives you a wider view of the world. It’s the mix of business, economics, and technology. You have access to the technological resources of MIT, which really informs one’s business education. Second is the international makeup of the class. It broadens you culturally. You become more adept at working in diverse organizations. The third thing is the cohort group. They stay with you for life. I call these people for advice. We stay connected.

Q: You’ve been involved in so many extraordinary events. Was there a class here that helped you in dealing with these challenges?

A: Absolutely. There was one course everyone remembers when they leave: Choice Points: Readings on the Exercise of Power and Responsibility. For several hours every Friday morning, we would read classical literature and derive ethical dilemmas from it. You can bring your spouse and friends. It’s an extraordinary course and directly transferable to leadership and managerial dilemmas you face on the outside.

Q: How was the Coast Guard involved in the Haitian earthquake?

A: Because of our patrols off Cuba and Haiti, we were some of the first responders into Haiti. It was very chaotic,  and it was very traumatic for our people, too, because they had never seen that magnitude of loss of life and injury. We had people with no medical training attending to people with first aid. They were splinting compound fractures with tree limbs.

Q: In many of the events you’ve been involved in, people experienced strong emotions. As a leader, how do you handle these situations?

A: One aspect to the emotional content of work like this is the natural reaction of communities that have been traumatized. Often, it’s anger and frustration. There is personal and societal grieving. You need to understand that, but you can’t let it hobble your response. You can’t become so overwhelmed with emotion that you can’t focus on what you have to do.

People often are very angry, and they’re using a lot of energy being angry, when you could be using that energy to fix the problem. It’s often possible get emotional buy-in for a unified effort.

Q: It has been a little over a year since the oil spill. What shape is the Gulf in today?

A:  Depending on where you were on the coast, you saw a highly different event and were affected in highly different ways. The impact on someone running a  concession stand on a beach in Pensacola, Florida, is much different than the impact on a shrimper working on Barataria Bay in Louisiana.

To a large extent, the beach areas are open for business. We still have oil in the very secluded marsh areas, and we have a challenging problem in three or four places in Louisiana where if you go in and clean the oil out, you actually kill the marshes.

All of the fishing grounds have been reopened with the exception of some oyster beds. The seafood coming out of the Gulf is the most tested seafood in the world right now. People ask, “Is it safe to eat seafood?” I say, “If it comes out of the Gulf, eat away.”

There’s a long-term scientific question about the fate of the oil in the water. If someone tells you they know what happened to it, they’ve just told you they don’t understand the problem. There hasn’t been enough research. We need a coordinated scientific effort to understand what happened in the Gulf in the chemistry of the oil interacting with the water.

Q: Is the world better prepared for crises today?

A: I think we are, but there’s a larger question. Populations are increasing. We have large population centers near water. You could have the same event that happened fifty years ago, and the percentage of casualties might be the same, but the absolute number will be much larger. We are more vulnerable. We have every reason to believe sea levels are going to rise. We have changes in weather patterns. It’s probably not good enough to get better than the last time.

A 17-year Coast Guard veteran when he became a Sloan Fellow in 1988-1989, Admiral Allen has been a central figure in major US and world events. Along with directing the government’s response to the Gulf oil spill, he oversaw the Coast Guard’s Eastern US activities after September 11, 2001. He was later named the federal official in charge of Hurricane Katrina rescue, recovery, and relief. As Coast Guard commandant, Admiral Allen administered the service’s efforts after the Haitian earthquake. Last year he retired from the Coast Guard after 39 years of distinguished service and now works for the RAND Corp. and teaches at George Washington University

For more information on Alumni Weekend visit Building the Future 

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