Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 7, 2010

Service and Politics

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on July 7, 2010

Over the past few days, an interesting discussion has been taking place in the comments section of this blog about the proper role of the military in disaster operations and the recovery process in particular. In this debate, I hear echoes of the discussions that took place the week before surrounding public participation in homeland security and emergency management. Both of these discussions raise questions about the place of professionalism and leadership in crisis management.

People who talk about civic engagement usually make a distinction between two different manifestations of it in public life: service and politics. As noted by Walker (2000), people continue to hold generally positive views of service but have developed a more jaundiced view of politics. This may explain why public officials we see as exemplars of service, such as military service members, firefighters, police officers (often but not always), and judges, merit such abiding trust and respect. At the same time, however, it raises questions about the way we see those who serve without compensation.

Our homeland security and emergency management discourse, like that of the public generally, seems to assume that most of these activities are jobs for professionals. It may be true that much of the complex work we associate with these fields requires highly specialized skills and strong technical intuitions honed over time. But it is probably more accurate to say that we value professionalism in these fields for the same reason we disdain overt political involvement: We see professionalism as having a particular character that is unencumbered by self-interest or at the very least informed by a strong sense of moral purpose.

This was not always the case, however. Distrust of government and elected officials in particular is nothing new in these United States. In the early days of the republic, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the unusual tendency of Americans to voluntarily organize themselves for the common good rather than vesting government with additional powers and responsibilities. Spontaneous associations of every sort seemed to arise in every nook and cranny of civil society. These days, in contrast, civic engagement or the perceived lack of it has become a cause of increasing concern in some quarters. Even before 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq some commentators questioned the sustainability of the all-volunteer military.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have clearly stretched our military resources, but they have also demonstrated the adaptability and resourcefulness of our men and women in uniform and their families. This is especially true of the citizen soldiers and airmen of the National Guard and their counterparts in the active reserve.

Associations between service, especially military service, and citizenship, especially as it is manifest through community engagement are very common, but not altogether clearly a case of cause and effect as some might assume. Although it is no doubt true that many if not most of those who serve our country under arms willingly extend their commitment to service long after their severance from active duty in myriad voluntary capacities, the instincts that impel such involvement may just as easily have been the cause of their military service rather than its inevitable result. In contrast, the case for military experience in politics works differently indeed. For much of our history, we have looked to military service if not as a prerequisite for public office then at least a strong endorsement of a candidate’s character.

Dan O’Connor wrote a couple of weeks ago about the lack of evidence of shared sacrifice on the homefront accompanying the current conflicts. He went so far as to suggest that the nation itself was not at war, even if we might agree that our military is thus engaged.

The evidence of disengagement, however, is difficult to pin down, at least for me, situated as I am in a place — Portland, Oregon — renowned for the habits of its citizens to be highly engaged in both service and politics. On one hand, I am aware of persistent criticism of the Deepwater Horizon response, which seems to emerge from the fact that people see so little evidence of a professional (much less effective) response. On the other, I hear people complaining bitterly over the lack of tangible and meaningful opportunities to engage in voluntary service to stem the tide of oil heading for the shores of the Gulf Coast states.

Clearly, people see a place for professionalism in the response to catastrophes. But do professionals see a role for them?

What everyone seems to agree on, but no one seems as yet to have a handle on, is that the Deepwater Horizon crisis, like catastrophes before it, demands clear and decisive leadership. But genuine and effective leadership is no more about telling people what to do than it is telling them what they want to hear. Real leadership involves listening and learning, deciding and doing, assuming responsibility and acting upon reflection.

In each phase, leaders have both the opportunity and necessity to engage others. Engagement in this sense is about more than just managing people as resources. It involves making people a part of every decision and action that affects their interests.

Failing to note and act upon this only sets us up for failure. Because, in the end, try as we may to separate service from politics, the two go hand-in-hand. People may serve without expectation of remuneration or compensation, but they will not stay satisfied for long if they do not have a say in what happens and how it gets done. We can agree to disagree about who should lead the response in the Gulf of Mexico, but we should agree that whoever takes the lead cannot afford to go it alone.

Further reading:

Skocpol, T. (1999). How Americans Became Civic in Skocpol, T. and M. Fiorina, Civic Engagement in American Democracy, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, pp. 27-80.

Walker, T. (2000). The Service/Politics Split: Rethinking Service to Teach Political Engagement, PS: Political Science and Politics 33(3), pp. 646-649.

Youniss, J.; McLellan, J. & Yates, M. (1997). What We Know About Engendering Civic Identity, The American Behavioral Scientist 40(5), pp. 620-631.

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16 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 7, 2010 @ 12:50 am

Great post! I would argue the tensions underlying the analysis is what will keep democracy alive in US but could also kill it. A delicate balance. Decided ultimately by each citizen although truthfully I am not a believer in collective guilt or innocence. If you live in a democracy you must participate no matter what the costs. The benefit is a continued democracy (Republic in our case)! No doubting that effort is a substantial one. Exactly what propels one man or one woman to stand for election and what propels one man or one woman to then vote for them? A somewhat mystical process definitely bounded by aspects of faith but also hopefully reason.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 7, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

Mark, Thanks for the helpful overview. I find myself agreeing with you. But I am also left wondering about how leadership requires follower-ship.

There are situations where the best leaders cannot gin-up much tangible progress. I think of Lincoln prior to Vicksburg; or Roosevelt in the 1937-38 recession; or Churchill after France fell and as the Luftwaffe battered Britain.

In each case we look back on these men as great leaders. At the time they suffered every sort of personal and political attack. Yet there was also a kind of crowd wisdom that stood with these leaders, even in these depths.

I hear attacks. I see anger. I perceive frustration or apathy. I don’t seem to see many responding to leadership with readiness. I don’t think the problem is always one of leadership.

Comment by Mark Chubb

July 7, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

Phil, I may be stuck on the question of leadership because I have seen so little evidence of it in this crisis.

People pay as much if not more attention to the character of leaders and their dispositions to challenging situations as the way they respond to them. Indeed, when leaders find their options limited or the object of their attention beyond the vision or ken of those whose followership they depend upon, it becomes all the more important for them to pay attention to the intangibles.

I think your examples reinforce this. History has judged Lincoln, Roosevelt and Churchill less harshly than they were viewed at the time because they demonstrated the courage of their convictions. People came around to their point of view only after considerable efforts on their parts to build and maintain trusted relations among diverse groups of advisors. That happened because they were relentless but flexible in the pursuit of their objectives. They invested continuously in their teams and built their own reputations by selecting and promoting people who could help them overcome obstacles to the acceptance of their respective visions. They understood implicitly that a leader is never off duty or beyond scrutiny.

History may well look back on the President’s performance favorably either because of or in spite of his leadership in this crisis. But they will judge him not only by what he does personally and formally in his role as President. He will be judged by what he does and what he does not do. How he manages himself and those around him in when they are not dealing directly with the crisis at hand will largely determine the opinions others hold of his administration.

As for your point about followers, this too requires leadership. Leadership is less about authority or position than disposition. Deciding to follow a flawed leader or a leader with a flawed position requires courage and commitment. Deciding not to follow, refusing to contribute to the solution or offering criticism instead of constructive feedback that helps those in authority correct their mistakes may require chutzpah but it should not be confused with courage is a coward’s course of action. (When we allow frustration to give way to the unconstructive emotion of anger, are we not giving in to the fear that we are helpless to change our situation or how we view our relationship to it?)

In the end, every leader must also be a follower; a follower of principle if nothing else. Followers for their part must always show as much or more courage and commitment to their principles as those to whom they turn for orientation and direction, if only because our leaders are always and inevitably flawed.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 7, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

All great comments on this post. What concerns me is that the sinews of real leadership are no longer valued. This includes self-sacrifice, broad world views and experience, understanding of the eternal verities for want of a better term.
It has always interested me that the NEW DEAL for example was led by the very new profession of Social Work [Frances Perkins] and not the lawyers although some were very helpful. Also FDR does appear to have changed his spots to some degree post polio.
Character and leadership are everything in improving the chances for success of any project, mission, countries future etc.
Still hoping for the best.

Again one reform I suggest is that the President’s no longer surprise US with their choices of a VP when nominated. What leadership examples were given by the 2008 election? Both parties had persons who had been elected by someone and that’s pretty much it. Survival in an enemy prison camp is remarkable but not necessarily leadership.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

July 7, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

An emotional and challenging topic!

Overly litigious and highly risk averse, current “leaders” generally do not impress or inspire, but lead by not deciding; leading by polling…

Bill said survival in an enemy prison camp is remarkable but not necessarily leadership. OK, but does “community organizing”? Does governing small states? Running a business? What kind of leader do we need or want?

I would contend or at least debate that the leaders mentioned; Lincoln, Churchill, and Roosevelt could not exist or execute the way they did under the present tenor of the 21st century.

Yes all three, judged by history, practiced what may have been situational decision making, but that’s more a discovery and a product of research.

Is that too critical? Its probably an excellent point to discuss. Be that as it may, where are the hard decision makers?

Who is the Churchill or Lincoln of the economic crisis or the fight against terrorism? Will history prove Eisenhower a much more adept leader than Reagan? What is the criteria for leadership?

What does it say about our National cynicism and “hindsight expectations?” How can we expect to be lead when we cannot follow? How badly do we want real, competent, courageous, and spiritual leaders?

Is this the quintessential burden of the future? Leadership is everything and yet, often terribly ill defined. I am not trying to provoke, overstate or simplify. What makes competent leaders; Harvard or hard knocks?

This leadership rabbit hole is deep, wide, and full of turns and surprises. Do we want Homeland Security professionals or professional, competent leaders in homeland security? Is there a difference?

Thanks for the posts gentlemen!

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 8, 2010 @ 4:47 am

Actually DAN your point is a good one and I would agree that most of the US leadership does not have the wide experience that would lead to the fullest measure of a competent leader.

Exactly why is that? In part the system seems to want those without a record in reality so that the manipulators of the democratic process can provide an “electable” identity. See Robert Redford’s movie “The Candidate”!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 8, 2010 @ 6:32 am

In other places I have described the particular role of homeland security professionals as being able to engage complex, unpredictable situations. In many respects, the skill set needed for this role is very similar to what I define as leadership.

Managers can direct resources to achieve purpose in a predictable context. Leaders are needed to engage the unpredictable and still advance purpose.

Mark has previously admitted to supporting Mr. Obama in the election and continuing to wish him well. But I also read above (and before) an increasing dissatisfaction with the President’s leadership, especially tied to the Gulf crisis. Mark is certainly not alone, and if any phenomenon is well suited for crowd-sourcing it would probably be perception of leadership.

But why? The President’s policies and decisions did not create the problem. The government has committed significant resources to managing and mitigating the problem. A moratorium on deep water drilling was announced and has been defended, even under some legal duress. Regulatory measures are being tightened. The White House has intervened directly with BP in what, to date, seems to be a successful effort to hold the company financially accountable for the consequences of the oil spill. The President has set out a strategic goal (increased diversity of energy sources)as a long-term means of reducing our dependence on high-risk drilling operations.

I certainly agree the problem continues. Is there anything short of victory that defines leadership?

With apologies, I will share a bit of a whine… I surprise myself to share this in public. My generation – boomers – continue to dominate much of our culture. When we were young, our heroes — John, Bobby, and Martin were taken from us. In colleges and universities our idealism, whatever it might have been, was often exposed as self-serving. In young adulthood we suffered through Watergate and a number of other tawdry affairs involving our so-called leaders. During middle-age, as we have assumed roles of nominal leadership, we have vaguely perceived — and perhaps felt complicit — in an unsustainable, fundamentally unreal reorganization of economic and social relationships.

If I met Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Churchill on a mountaintop – emerging together from an aurora of light — I worry my first thought might be concern over what I had for lunch.

Comment by Mark Chubb

July 8, 2010 @ 9:43 am

Phil is right to question whether we value leadership in terms of results alone (or at least primarily). For my part, I take the view that the journey matters as much if not more than the destination.

In this instance (Deepwater Horizon), I am less frustrated with the President’s performance than I am with that of his team and others more directly responsible for the Gulf response and recovery effort. I don’t hold the leader with position and authority responsible for every failure to reach the destination, and the flight plan is clearly still open on this one.

Because the journey matters too, I am concerned that the team has not adequately embraced the challenge Phil and I have discussed before, which is how to engage others interested in and affected by a crisis in broader cooperation and collaboration to define and pursue common aims. The anger being expressed reflects dissatisfaction borne being forced to make the journey in the first place, not getting to the desired destination quickly enough, and not having taken the recommended routes and shortcuts suggested by the passengers. Leaders cannot afford to attend any one of these issues to the exclusion or marginalization of the others.

We can’t change the fact that this journey has begun, but we can take concrete steps to address why we started on it and how we might prevent others from following us. We might not be able to speed up the journey without jeopardizing the safety or comfort of the passengers or endangering bystanders. So far the voices in the Gulf Coast have received most of the attention. I dare say others situated farther from the spill have different views about the wisdom of continuing offshore drilling. Leaders must assume responsibility for helping the passengers and bystanders reconcile their competing interests in the destination and timetable for getting there. Finally, the a leader must acknowledge the assistance offered even when its not helpful to engage it. Giving people a sense they have a part to play is only a start. They have to see and hear your response too.

I have little doubt that the technical side of this catastrophe is being handled about as well as could be expected. But that does not change the fact that people did not expect anything of this scope or scale, they had prior assurances that everything that needed to be done was in place to handle such a contingency, and they have had little evidence that they are getting closer to the destination. All the while, they are finding the ride unsettling and unsatisfying.

Phil was right to remind us that Lincoln, Roosevelt and Churchill faced similar struggles. Fortunately for them, they did not have to respond in a 24×7 media environment that questioned their every motivation and move.

One last point then on leadership. Many of the posts in this thread and elsewhere on the blog seem to define leadership solely in terms of decisions and actions. An effective leader, these posts seem to suggest knows what to say and do, and says it and does it or at the very least motivates, delegates or instructs others to do it for him or her. I have attempted to point out that inactions sometimes matter more than actions in both a positive and negative sense.

President Obama cannot afford either to be consumed with or by this crisis. He has many other important matters to deal with, some of them arguably much more critical to our national welfare. His lack of attention to the Gulf disaster should be interpreted as effective leadership, even if the situation does not improve as quickly as we might like, if and only if others step up to address the situation as I have discussed. This requires professionalism of the sort Phil suggests, and those qualities may exist in abundance among our military leaders, but I have seen them elsewhere in evidence and hope to see them engaged more effectively in this instance as well.

Comment by The Greed of Service and Politics

July 8, 2010 @ 10:35 am

Kudos gentlemen for a discussion very important in today’s 21 century global complexities requiring men and women who have character, Life’s experiences, maturity, distrust for much of what they are told with the inherent confidence to make decisions which may not be in their personal interest, but certainly in the interest in this our beloved Republic -

Whether in the White House with the President or the staffers or for that matter on both sides of the Congressional floor in capable of the hard line which must be taken first among themselves and then with the necessary difficult decisions which must be made (yesterday) if we are to – globally – survive without more despair….

Last night, for the first time, a solar paneled aircraft flew at night and for 26 hours with 3 hours remaining when it touched down – technology…promise, hopefulness, astute entrepreneurial brilliance – this si what the 21st century and beyond should be about, not the dysfunctional and narrow minded perspective, the lack of tolerance towards others who may disagree…

Unfortunately, scripture has been written and while God hopes we can all repent, to change our selfish ways here and beyond, greed, self-agenda and hatred will prevail and we will not see man’s life span to 125 years and more…we will fail. We will fail because of this lack of leadership, this arrogance in greed, lust for prowess in power not only here in America, but even more so with the evolving German led EU and the all too powerful Vatican.

The stone walls erected by neighbor in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East will not be torn down by the owners of the stonewalls built by their great-grandfather and repaired and retained by each successive generation and it will not be the Russians or the Americans or Europeans who will be able to help the Middle East or the Germans and Europeans the mistrust and inherent hatred which continually promotes disharmony, senseless murder of innocents and of our precious youth no matter where as I walk the streets of Cairo, Jerusalem, Hebron, Jericho and I see the same ‘ol, same ‘ol discomfort with one another, their misfortune and ours – for each of us shares one Creator and not written in the Koran, but in the Bible, if man would only follow simple ways of Life and respect one another, not necessarily to embrace one another, yet make tireless effort to understand another’s perspective, to discuss rather than pick up weapon and slay the other – all because mankind is unwilling to serve – entrusted – leadership roles to guide and mentor –

We need more elders to show those in Hamas, Hezbollah, AQ and others that cold-blooded murder is not their practice, their business with leadership coffers spilling over the brim and massive structures rise from the sands of their forefathers while the good Palestinian for example, sits almost in squalor, frustrated, fellow brethren turning their cheek the other way while each Palestinian should have hope, not despair, an education to enable their precious young to compete, to be innovative, to progress…yet, leadership whether the Arab Counsel or other in Dubai skiing indoors or buyers in upscale retail stores in their disinterest in assuring that all will be given dignity, entrusted leadership is no where to be seen and successive generations of youth -precious youth see very little if any hope for the future and being recruited by fundamentalists, point to the west, when in fact it is this lack of leadership, compassion and of course a woman’s lipstick which underscores the resulting despair of the Middle East which the west is also responsible -

I do hope more of this wonderful blog’s readers globally will keep talking about the need for character, the need for non-partisan leadership, individuals who truly care about others and those far yonder for we all share a stake in the near-future for all are being enslaved by the ever powerful and unfortunately, the “Brutes of Tehran” and the intolerance of the German leading the soon to be ten (10) nation EU supported by the Vatican whose first interest is its own coffers and hidden treasures beneath and in vault which will fail us all –

Serive and politics whether here in teh local community where one must campaign for a local Selectman’s seat paying $50 monthly as stipend for expenses, but to be elected, most incur $20k in election costs to in the seat or take a look at the present million and millions candidates must spend to get elected – to represent and guess what – most of us have reached a point here on Main Street USA, never mind anywhere else, where when we see “incumbent” on the ballot, a No vote of confidence as our great Republic is being torn from within.

We have a President who constantly turns to the Islamic followers and makes promises to them when he needs to get off the television every day and meet behind closed doors with his party members and together with those across the aisle turn this certain course of doom and enjoin all, not make an “appointment” when Congress is unable to question such appointment –

Mr. President, you have greatly expedited our demise in your first chapters of your Presidency by ramping up as never before the budget deficit. We really do not care whether Republican or Democrat, this quite apparent “agenda” does not sit well w/most Americans.

Service and politics go hand in hand and We are not seeing service to the Republic, but, rather, you and most others serving self and for you and others, some planned scheme of enslaving as many as possible and stifling innovativeness, discouraging entrepreneurial zeal, individualism in expression, creativity….

You said during your campaign days that you would focus on making this fairer for all, you have done the opposite and together with both sides of the aisle, lacking in experience and being nothing than pawns for those who have no intentions of giving up power, their lusting whether among the Arab leaders in the backrooms, downstairs in the basement in the goverment (capital) building in Pakistan or for that matter and for the most part among local, state and global leaders, whether clerics, parliment or school committe members all potraying that servive and politics spells self-agenda and a ticket to pre-eminece above the law given to us by our Creator showing us in simple terms how we can truly serve one another….

God Bless America and the Brits who were bombed for 86 of 87 nights by Hitler in the summer of ’40 and without Churchill and his leadership, all of us, no matter where would today be under the guise of the Third Reich whether in London or Amman….Have respect for history. While some idiot who rewrites history and willingly spills the richness of Persian blood on the streets of Tehran, a wonderful people, well-educated, innovative and despite the “Brutes of Tehran” as supposedly serving as politicians, another example of the tyranny of which people are subjected to in history and as with every form of man-made government since Babylon, a failure for service and politics have proven beyond man’s reach!

God Bless our Republic, the United State of America whose young men and young women are not at all on foreign soil to take up permanent residence, but willing to pursue the criminal….

What young American would want to stay on foreign soil and give up his/her Right to freedom, to challenge those today seeking to re-write the Constitution or amend existing immigration laws where because of the unwillingness, the lack of commitment to uphold immigration laws requiring specific procedures like all other sovereign nations….

….a USA which has looked the other way in recent years to allow 12 million illegal residents and now challenges, yes, you Mr. President, challenges the majorityof Americans whose grandparents and parents, even themselves, who have had to adhere to the immigration law, often standing in line for two years just to secure a visa to the USA….

….while you Mr. President, you cohorts and especially “smug-smiled Pelosi and Mr. Barney” seeking to challenge a local State government and its people so subjected to illegal behavior on the part of immigrant and you seek to use your legal manipulations to curcumvent the will of the people in all corners of our Republic, illigal immigration is not tolerated.

The unemployment rate is not 9.5% – get a hold o0f yourselves – it is far greater and the lack of real jobs, real meainful job creation in a nation which has allowed big business to set up manufaturing shop in and outside Beijing for decades and left with a servive sector, the lack of engineering and science graduates…more taxes…from what income as Americans, Europeans, even those in Dubai, have less and less and it all points to War once again as mankind is loed astray by those we entrust whether on Main Street USA or Main Street Lagos, service and politics depict leadership skills in nothing less than criminal action in the theft of mankind’s dignity and theft of his labor and gain by the bankers assuring that this generation and offspring remain impoverished and easily manipulated for those who are professional politicians abusive in their power understand that when hope is lost, mankind without his/her spirituality will do almost anything including believing that strapping a bomb around one’s waist – by the way witnessed by God – is somehow ok to kill, cold-blooded murder of another, an innocent fellow human being, and that somehow this hopeless individual duped into killing himself and others -

Enough is enough….

We are all tired of hearing how much BP has spent because of its intentional disregard for the “little people” and in China, such outright negligence, would be a line up rather than a service and politics as usual….How outrageous…empathy for ssharholder rather than our own families, children….

How dare you Mr. President? We are not interested in your continued overtures to the Muslim. As a Hellene, American born, second generation, proud of my Spartan heritage, however very proud of America which has been the Beacon of Hope for so many….The Muslim American works hard daily, is no different tahnanyoen else as I as Hellene, those we are American, love our nation, respect our forefathers and what they intended and wrote in affording us the Constitition….

Mr. President, while we have yet to feel confident of your citizenry and Right to be President as another example like the first stimulus monies which Hank Paulson and “Mr. Barney” have yet to account for – lost much like your birth certigicate and those who remember you in class or growing up (where) with you…We know we are at peril and with the EU promising slower growth and strife from within as we look at the 27th September German elections to see who will lead the new German-EU…We here on Main Street are quite enlightened and see service and politics here and yonder as nothing more than….

The clarity of Biblical pages and scripture are turning quickly with the clock ticking and while you choose to take our monies and enslave us to your service and political agenda, we do and unfortunately know your greed and partisan agenda….

….your unwillingness to place shareholder and elitist interests aside and Biblical scripture cautions you that this service and politics will result in your demise as well….for already we see your uneasiness and discord among you as all becomes more and more evident and little or no hope remains…Double dip? Far worse….

Joe Citizen
Main Street
chris.tingus@gmail.com

Comment by Dan O'Connor

July 8, 2010 @ 11:57 am

Mark;

“…One last point then on leadership. Many of the posts in this thread and elsewhere on the blog seem to define leadership solely in terms of decisions and actions. An effective leader, these posts seem to suggest knows what to say and do, and says it and does it or at the very least motivates, delegates or instructs others to do it for him or her. I have attempted to point out that inactions sometimes matter more than actions in both a positive and negative sense…”.

Leadership is more than action. In many respects there is an intangible quality that inspires, instills confidence etc. It’s a much nuanced personalization in my view. Perhaps it a presence, an ability to capture the moment, maybe even charisma… I think those are the gap fillers if you will. Obviously no one has the right answer at the right time all the time. I do agree with you, in terms of inaction as a leadership trait. I would characterize it more as active stasis…overtly deciding to wait is in fact a decision.

It’s in that darkness or knowledge void that one seeks, for lack of a better term, comfort and that carries the day. So to amplify many of your themes, the humanist qualities for interactive and effective relations are often more important than simply having answers.

I very much appreciate your point of view.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 8, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

What is the weight of the “vision” component in leadership?

Comment by Mark Chubb

July 8, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

Bill, I think of vision as more of a “volume” thing than a “mass” thing. I know many of us consider ourselves prone to thinking weighty thoughts, but vision should describe the extent to which our thoughts encompass others’ perspectives and give them space to interact with or engage our goals as their own.

Picking up on Dan’s comment, it might have been better for leaders to admit that the capacity to manage the spill was simply non-existent until the flow could be staunched by drilling relief wells, and even this involves some room for doubt. Rather than giving people hope in the technical solution, leadership would have taken this challenge as an opportunity to bring people together to craft a vision for the recovery and restoration that balances the competing economic and environmental issues (not to mention the social and cultural dimensions).

This would have required leaders to acknowledge the failure of regulation (or the lack of it), and present the catastrophe as evidence that any attempt to manage the risks by technical and legal means alone leaves us with a residual risk that we can now see is simply unacceptable. The adaptive challenge posed by our thirst for petroleum could thus be presented in stark relief without ignoring the need to continue efforts to stop the flow, clean the beaches, and find and fine those responsible. At the same time, this approach would have made clear that these efforts alone will never put things back as they were. We can only create a better future by working together.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 8, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

Terrific analysis in your answer Mark. I do think starting with the worst case and hoping for the best might have been a more realistic and effective leadership approach. “We will fight them on the beaches”!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 8, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

This discussion is helpful. It has me reexamining several presuppositions… and it is causing me to confront some issues I have put aside too long.

I agree that leadership is crucial. I like the “volume” distinction. I understand that many, probably most, perceive that leadership in regard to the Deepwater Horizon event has been deficient. This widespread perception is meaningful to me.

I have not been to the Gulf. The only significant data I have for how leadership is being applied or received is transmitted through the media. Especially on this sort of issue, I do not consider the media a trustworthy source. It is inherent to broadcast media, in particular, to highlight conflict and disappointment.

What I can do is use Mark’s helpful description of good leadership to reflect on what I observed and heard our positional leaders saying and doing from late April. It seems to me they were predicting this would be a very long haul, that there were likely to be significant consequences, and they were going to hold BP to account. The appointment of Mr. Mabus is, as I understand it, specifically to bring together the regional “community” and competing interests and determine how “we” will deal with the reality together. Mr. Mabus has been selected for his perceived listening and leadership skills.

While excruciatingly academic, it would be an interesting project to take transcripts of “leadership” messages and see how the verbs, narrative, and audience changed over these days.

Someday I assume we will see transcripts of USG “discussions” with BP over time. These may give us even more data on how leadership was being exercised.

I am unhappy to be sounding so much like an apologist for the administration. But — until other data sources become available — I have perceived entirely reasonable leadership being applied.

But I will also admit that this experience calls into serious question that my definition of “reasonable” is the same as the vast majority of the population. My expectations of leadership are, it would seem, considerably less than most of my neighbors. This suggests I have made a good choice focusing on prevention and preparedness rather than response.

Comment by cheap flights pakistan

September 2, 2010 @ 1:47 am

But I will also admit that this experience calls into serious question that my definition of “reasonable” is the same as the vast majority of the population. My expectations of leadership are, it would seem, considerably less than most of my neighbors. This suggests I have made a good choice focusing on prevention and preparedness rather than response.

Comment by sarahharpauls

May 22, 2012 @ 1:02 am

love to read your blog


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