BP Oil Spill – The Shift in Power

If you click on the URL below, you can watch a status update from a VP of BP, outlining the latest efforts to plug the leak and control environmental damage.
While it remains absolutely inexcusable that an organization of BP’s size, stature and experience would not have had a standard emergency plan in place, it’s fruitless to ruminate over it further. All resources must be forward-focussed on solutions.
What’s more productive and enlightening is to witness the shift in power that technology is forcing, and how this trend is a two-edged sword.
First, BP says in the video that so far they’ve received over 15,000 suggested solutions from the public(!)Of course, they’ve already deployed 20,000 professionals from the industry (even including experts from competitors)and given the complexity of the issue, I’d imagine the ‘right’ solution will come from the latter. But technology (the Internet)allows the public to easily and instantly vent their emotion and contribute opinion, and it also allows BP to keenly feel the full breadth and depth of public opinion. Perhaps even ten years ago, any one of the Seven Sisters oil companies might have simply ignored the public and dealt with this problem internally and arrogantly. They would do so today at their peril. A widespread boycott of BP could spread through the Internet like grass-fire, should the public perceive that BP was reacting irresponsibly. No company can risk that outcome.
Perhaps BP would have taken their current course of action anyway, but the fact remains that given the shift in power to the public, they are almost forced to do so today.
From a corporate perspective, it could be said that this shift in power is an annoyance; one that shifts management’s time, energy and resources towards something that before could be ignored. But there is another edge to the sword, so to speak, and it has a hugely positive benefit.
Any ability to interact with others on a broad scale, to collaborate, is a blessing by any measure in today’s competitive business arena. So while the Internet facilitates a ranting public, it also enables BP to engage in real-time conversation, to ensure they have their ‘day in court’ every day, through status updates. It allows BP to manage the rumour mill by supplying timely facts to any who care to listen. In my opinion, BP has done a good job leveraging this technology on their website. I am impressed by the high-cost, multi-tiered approach they’ve adopted, and while I’m certainly no expert, watching their video left me thinking that their approach was both logical, committed and sincere.
Even more important to ponder though, is how this shift in power might beneficially transform even the very structure of organizations. How will the capability to interact and collaborate in real-time with the global talent pool affect the traditional boundaries and definitions of employment in companies? P&G has already tapped into this capability in the area of product development, actively soliciting new product ideas from the public. In 2002, Goldcorp posted all their data for the Red Lake mine on the Internet, with a six figure prize for the geologist who told them where to drill next for gold. It worked; with many geologists collaborating successfully, none of whom Goldcorp had previously even heard of.
Immediate two-way access to all the intelligence on the planet is changing the rules of the game. The resultant transparency will force the ‘leaders’ of less conscientious companies to act more responsibly. That’s a good thing (are you listening Wall Street?) Many organizations will simply try to cope with the shift in power that the Internet has caused; to identify the ‘must do’s’ and grudgingly comply, but the smart ones will embrace it as a boundless opportunity to access brilliance, innovation, and creativity.
Regardless, the shift in power is here to stay.

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Leading Based Upon Principles, Not Party

I feel somewhat remiss that my blogs on leadership often deal with US examples (Obama), but I must confess that of late I am not impressed with leadership in Canadian politics. I did recently hear Michael Ignatieff speak, and admit that while I was initially against him, he seemed informed and sincere in his speech, and even showed a bit of (dare I say!) passion. So we’ll see what actually happens.
But what we have just witnessed in the US should be examined carefully because it represents the epitome of leadership behaviour. First, Barak Obama became convinced that reforming health care was an absolute ‘must’ in order to position America competitively for the next century. Having heard arguments from the best and brightest on the issue, he decided it had to be done, even if it risked forfeiting his second term if efforts failed. When, during the eleventh hour, senior Democrats advised he pull back, and table a diluted, mini-version of the bill in order to reduce risk to his Presidency, only he and Nancy Pelosi insisted that they continue to push forward with the full bill. Nutshell version: do the right thing for the country regardless of party politics or personal risk.
Second, Obama had already engaged in critical strategic programs ‘under the radar’ and in parallel with the highly controversial and media covered health care issue. Witness the US/Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty, the FLOTUS national initiative on reducing obesity, the quiet overhaul on the national education system, channelling of stimulus funding to create jobs in the renewable energy fields, the desperately needed financial reform legislation, and today, the announcement to allow off-shore drilling for oil.
Effective leaders focus intensely on the most critical issues, but also keep multiple plates spinning at the same time. Examining each program, we will also find that they are all strategically aligned to achieve an overriding objective for the country.
For Obama, that objective means protecting and positioning America to lead in this century, which means facing the serious obstacles it has created for itself. Every program needs to be aligned to serve that objective. So reducing health care costs (notice that the Obesity program systematically attacks the problem from the source, too) will lower indebtedness, and allow more competitive economic growth globally. Revamping education will ensure their workforce is capable of competing in the burgeoning hyper-speed Internet economy. Financial reforms will ensure the greedy few cannot jeopardize the majority and crash the global system. And allowing short-term offshore drilling will alleviate the stranglehold currently enjoyed by foreign oil producers, while allowing research into renewable energy to gain a foothold and eventually deliver American energy independence.
Will all or any of this work? Who knows? But the important leadership lesson is two-fold: to have the courage to put the most important objectives above personal and party agendas, and to carefully align all efforts to yield synergistic results. Should time and fate defeat eventually the initiative, Obama can rest easy that he led the right way.

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Crunch Time

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you”

That’s the opening line of my favorite poem “IF” by Rudyard Kipling, and if Obama hasn’t yet read it, now’s the time. A sensationalist U.S. media, starving for some major misstep on his part that would fuel their audience’s penchant for the negative, has already begun to insinuate that the health care reform is not going to pass, that Afghanistan will be his undoing, that the stimulus package has not worked, that he’s taken on too much too soon. And they barely conceal their glee when announcing that his ratings have “plunged” to 59%.
What a colossal failure Obama is! After a whole six months, he hasn’t fixed anything yet! The sky will soon fall according to them. And it is unfortunate that the general public chooses to watch CNN and Fox rather than the level-headed, factual, seasoned experts invited by Charlie Rose and Jim Lehrer on their programs (thank God for PBS!). There one can find some semblance of sanity; there one will see “old” clips of Obama repeatedly telling the nation back in January and February that these are deep, long brewing, systemic problems, that are going to take some pain, and a long time to fix; there one will hear Director of Management and Budget Peter Orszag explain the lag required for a stimulus of that magnitude to take effect on the economy. But most of the public watch the network news, or partisan cable stations, and set their expectations accordingly, and have now started to scream for unemployment to fall by next week, for the Iraq and Afghanistan problems to be resolved soon

So Obama needs now to keep his head when all about him are losing theirs, and blaming it on him. From a leadership perspective, this is precisely the time that he must stay the course, and live by his principles and values, despite the firestorm whipping up around him, and the criticism and abandonment of those who such a short time ago were solidly on the bandwagon. It’s crunch time: time for steely resolve, calm thinking, and leading by example until the emotional crowd comes back to it’s collective sense and realizes that it can no longer place it’s head in the sand and delay the inevitable. It’s crunch time: time to take the lousy tasting medicine, and start the tough journey that will create a better future for them and their children.
The easy route for him would now be to stoop to the old politics: deal-making, compromises made to secure another term as opposed to solving the astounding problems the nation faces, let the riskier challenges fade off the radar. But that would mean a betrayal of those who elected him. True leadership means delivering on the tough promises, even when those you made them to waiver and flag because they seem too overwhelming. Great leaders, even so abandoned, persist until the right things get accomplished.
There were times like this for other Presidents: Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman. Each held the course, and persisted until their duty was complete, despite calls for their heads by many who had elected them. It is now Obama’s turn. Let’s hope he can keep his head.

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Seismic Shifts in Leadership

It has been happening for about 20 years now, maybe a bit longer, but has, as of September 2008, started to make a seismic shift. The “it” I allude to is leadership development, and while leadership of one sort or another has been with us since people first started living in groups, it is only lately that our image of it has started to change; and change for the better in my view.
In Barak Obama, people around the world witnessed an underdog pull off one amazing upset after another: textbook perfect leadership behaviour as he became a national senator, gained the Democratic nomination, fended off the maniacal Jeremiah Wright, ousted Hillary Clinton, and soundly defeated John McCain. And how did he do this? When we examine it closely, we see someone who measured his words and promises carefully, then backed up his words with action. An ‘olive branch’ speech to the Muslim world was followed immediately by granting his first interview as President of the U.S. to Muslim a network. Rather than shrink away from the Wright controversy, Obama met the challenge with the most eloquent and forthright speech on racism in America in 40 years. He walked his talk.
The shift that is starting to register with people is the notion that we have a right to expect leadership to be a set of behaviours rather than a position of authority. That means Wall Street ‘leaders’ can no longer take irresponsible risks with our society, bring it to the brink of disaster, and still dole out outrageous bonuses to their old boys club. If they lay claim to leadership, the public is beginning to hold them accountable for their deeds and for results, as seen in the AIG bonus reversal. I doubt those ‘leaders’ have changed their minds or hearts, but if public pressure is the only thing that yields accountability, so be it. It’s a start.
Human rights journalists in Russia (at least two so far) have shown leadership by putting their lives on the line (and, unfortunately, losing them) for their beliefs. Former Iranian President Rafsanjahni dares to make a speech against the regime, demanding that those who are still distrustful of the election results be listened to and appeased. Dangerous and honorable leadership behaviour. Conversely, pols in the West (particularly Britain and America) are fast learning that prior public apathy and tolerance for scandal, corruption and deceit is exhausted.
This momentum bodes well for all of us. As our leaders begin to realize that we will more and more in future hold them accountable, expect them to live as they claim they will, perhaps they will rethink what it means to be an effective leader, and begin to develop the habits that will produce better results. Again, it would be better if they made the necessary changes for the right reason (that being to deliver the best possible outcomes for those they lead), but even if their sole motivation is to keep their political office or business position, we’ll still be better off.
The shift is starting, and it is not going to go away. But if we each look inward and ask how we might be better leaders too (clean our own houses first) we can ensure the momentum builds quickly and broadly. A little personal introspection will also help us know better what we can reasonably ask of our public leaders. Doing so on a regular basis will give us a better world.

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