Has it come to this again? The president is meeting with his oil spill experts, he crudely tells us, so that he knows “whose ass to kick.” We have become accustomed to his management style — target a scapegoat, assign blame and go on the attack. To win health care legislation, he vilified insurance executives; to escape bankruptcy law for General Motors, he demonized senior lenders; to take the focus from the excesses of government, he castigated business meetings in Las Vegas; and to deflect responsibility for the deepening and lengthening downturn, he blames Wall Street and George W. Bush. But what may make good politics does not make good leadership. And when a crisis is upon us, America wants a leader, not a politician.
We saw leadership on Sept. 11, 2001. Then as now, black billows seemed to come from the center of the earth. Lives had been lost. The environmental impact was immeasurable. The looming economic impact from lost tourism was incalculable. Into the crisis walked Rudy Giuliani. While that was an incomparable human tragedy, how the mayor led New York City to recover is a useful model for the president.
Rudy camped out at Ground Zero — he didn’t hole up in his office or retreat to his residence. His presence not only reassured the people of New York that someone was in charge, it also enabled the mayor to assess the situation firsthand, to take the measure of the people he had on the ground, and to understand the scope of the crisis.
The president has many critical matters that demand his attention, but brief and tardy tours and being photographed with a smudge of oil on a sandy beach don’t work on any level. There is no substitute for being there.
In a crisis, the leader must gather the experts — federal, state, local, public and private — not to discover who is to blame but to secure their active and continuous involvement until the crisis is resolved. There is extraordinary power inherent in an assembly of brilliant people guided by an able leader. In virtually every historic national crisis, our most effective leaders gathered the best minds they could find — consider the Founders in Philadelphia, Lincoln with his “Team of Rivals,” Roosevelt with scientists and generals seeking to end World War II, Kennedy with the “Best and Brightest” confronting the Cuban missile crisis.
What happens when men and women of various backgrounds, fields of expertise, and unfettered intellectual freedom come together to tackle a problem often exceeds any reasonable expectation. Ideas from one may cross-fertilize the thinking of another, yielding breakthroughs. The president of MIT told me that the university spent millions of dollars to build a bridge connecting two engineering departments that had been separated by a road — the potential for shared thinking made it more than worth the cost.
But even a gathering of experts won’t accomplish much unless a skilled leader uses their perspective to guide the recovery. So far, it has been the CEO of BP who has been managing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The president surely can’t rely on BP — its track record is suspect at best: Its management of this crisis has been characterized by obfuscation and lack of preparation. And BP’s responsibilities to its shareholders conflict with the greater responsibility to the nation and to the planet.
The president must personally lead the effort to solve the crisis. He cannot delegate this quintessential responsibility of his presidency in the way he delegated the stimulus bill, the cap-and-trade bill and the health care bill. It may be an instance of learning on the job, but it is a job only he can do.
The first rule of turnarounds is to focus time, energy and resources on what matters most. The president simply cannot treat this crisis like another of his many problems. The oil disaster could hurt millions of families, slam the regional economy, kill untold numbers of non-human lives and irreparably damage the planet. Among other things, he must not hold more rock concerts at the White House — I understand James Carville’s venting: His hero fiddled as oil churned.
Finding fault is easier than finding answers. And worse, it paralyzes many of the very people who may be needed to solve a crisis. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast states, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco went on the attack; Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour went to work. His state’s recovery is textbook; hers is not.
President Obama’s instigation of criminal investigations of BP at this juncture is classic diversion politics — and worse, it will engender bunker mentality at a time when collaboration and openness are most critical. BP’s actions and inactions are reprehensible; it must be made to pay the billions upon billions of dollars that this spill will ultimately cost. But call out the phalanx of lawyers later — solve the crisis today.
The president can learn a good deal from the crisis leadership of men and women in government and in business. Giuliani is a notable example, but so too are Washington, Adams, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Kennedy. In a time of national crisis, we look to our president to acknowledge, as Harry Truman did, that it is at his desk where the buck stops.
And even at Day 52, it’s better late than never.