In talk with dean, Admiral Thad Allen, SF ’89, explains leadership during crisis

Admiral Thad Allen, SF '89, MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein
Two things you can count on in a national crisis: media and politics.

Neither can be ignored, and to think otherwise is a losing move, said Admiral Thad Allen, SF ’89, the retired U.S. Coast Guard Commandant who led the response to last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Allen, in a frank conversation with John C Head III Dean David Schmittlein at Alumni Weekend today, gave MIT Sloan alumni an inside look at the challenge of leading a coordinated response to an unprecedented set of problems.

Allen showed no great love for the chain of political controversies and media uproars that accompanied and analyzed each of his decisions. But he is not so imaginative as to dismiss them.

“We live in a world right now where we will never have a major event that doesn’t have public participation,” Allen said. Failure to anticipate, include, and respond to criticism will only “impact the credibility of the response,” he added.

During the Deepwater Horizion crisis, Allen said his team approached communication proactively, launching an oil spill webmap on geoplatform.gov to put some of the government’s best information in the hands of the general public. That map, he said, was so good that he used it to brief President Obama and Vice President Biden.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Allen and his team were tasked with closing the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, balanced input from a tremendous list of stakeholders: national politicians, six state governors, Louisiana parish presidents, numerous government science entitites, BP, traditional media, social media, the fishing industry, and many more.

Allen called handling those interests “cognitive diversity” of a type that can yield great results from managed collective intelligence.

The pressure was intense, but Allen is a veteran of disaster. He led the government response to Hurricaine Katrina, was in Haiti soon after last year’s earthquake, and controlled the Coast Guard in New York Harbor after September 11. Before heading to the Gulf last year, he told his wife he was “not sure there’s a chance to succeed in this thing” and accepted the great possibility of being fired within a matter of weeks.

“You need to learn how to manage your own morale,” Allen advised the audience. He talked about emotional intelligence and the learned ability to monitor his own feelings in the midst of devastation and high-stakes response work.

Allen, now a senior fellow at RAND Corporation, credited his time at MIT Sloan with providing him a lifelong group of friends and colleagues who he looks to for advice—he has read senior lecturer Peter Senge’s organizational learning book The Fifth Discipline seven times—as well as a technical education that served him when working with complex engineering and science problems.

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