Three Things I Learned About Leadership From Admiral Allen Today

Posted 11.01.2010

Adm-allen-me This morning I had the opportunity to meet and learn from someone I’ve admired for the last five years – former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen.  Admiral Allen was the opening keynote speaker at Government Executive’s Excellence in Government Conference.  (I had the opportunity to speak and work with a terrific group of government executives later in the morning in a session on Leading at the Next Level.)

Adm-allenMost Americans first became aware of Admiral Allen when he led the disaster response to Hurricane Katrina following the dismissal of FEMA director Michael Brown. This past summer, President Obama appointed him to lead the interagency response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Allen was the Atlantic area commander in the days following 9/11 and played a key role in the Haitian earthquake relief efforts last January as Coast Guard cutters stationed off Haiti provided the first U.S. relief in the hours after the quake. With a resume like that, it’s easy to understand why Admiral Allen was asked to speak on “Leadership in a Time of Crisis.”

You’d be hard pressed to find a leader who’s led more crisis responses with more distinction than Allen.  He packed a lot of practical wisdom and experience in the 30 minutes that I was able to hear before I had to go set up for my session.

Here are three of his crisis leadership lessons that stuck with me:

Check Your Mental Model:  As he was flying to New Orleans for the first time after Katrina, Allen thought through his mental model for coordinating the response.  As he said this morning, if the levees and flood walls in New Orleans hadn’t failed, the impact of Katrina would have been felt the most in Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  It would have been a huge natural disaster but one the government was prepared to deal with. The mental model for hurricane response is well established.  Allen realized that the disaster unfolding in New Orleans was a different beast and that the existing mental model was the cause for the initial failed response.  The impact of the levees failing after the storm was the same as if terrorists had used a weapon of mass effect to blow up the levees.  While the state and local heads of government were in place, they lost the capability to deliver government services.  Checking and then shifting his mental model enabled Allen to work quickly with other officials like General Russell Honore to coordinate  a response that positioned the 82nd Airborne, the Coast Guard and the National Guard to conduct rescue and recovery efforts in an unprecedented situation.

Leverage Experience:  Once an operating rhythm was established, Allen and his team ended each day with a meeting with Gulf Coast state and local officials to review progress and plan the next day’s efforts.   The local officials had veto power.  When the earthquake hit Haiti, the situation was similar to Katrina. The Haitian government was unable to respond because its infrastructure was destroyed but most of the government officials were still in place.  Allen was able to leverage what he had learned in the Katrina experience to quickly establish a relief process in Haiti that put the U.S. ambassador in place as the lead representative to the Haitian government. 

Coordinate Your Efforts:  Admiral Allen talked with obvious pride about the coordination between the heads of FEMA, USAID and the Department of Defense in rapidly responding to the Haitian quake.  When the Deepwater Horizon rig sank a few days after exploding, Allen told us that the President called his cabinet together to say he wanted everyone working the problem.  When a crisis requires the involvement of lots of different public and private entities, Allen says you have to work to avoid what he calls a Blues Brother situation.  Everyone is on a mission from God and can end up working at cross purposes.   A big part of Allen’s time and attention in the oil spill response was to make sure the command and control was in place to coordinate the many entities that were working the problem.

There’s not enough space in one blog post to cover all the points Admiral Allen made in 30 minutes.  What was very clear is that he’s a leader who takes the time to think through the problem he’s charged with solving and then sets up the processes that enable others to effectively work the problem.