Rich Cooper

Nov 18, 2010

Several weeks back, I had the good fortune to interview retired U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen for Faircount Media Group. In our discussion, he reflected on the lessons learned from this year’s Gulf oil spill, as well as his experiences with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and what can only be called an eventful career in public service. In sharing the interview, I can’t help but feel as we approach the end of the calendar year and hand out honors that there is one more that should be handed out.

Every year, TIME Magazine honors a Person of the Year – some individual (or entity – the personal computer and planet have won the honor before) who has had the greatest impact upon the past year’s news cycle. Undoubtedly, the President, whoever it is, is on this short list. This year it’s safe to say people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are also on that list.  Whether you like them or not, each of them has had a tremendous impact upon the nation’s news in 2010, but I’d love to see this year’s honor go to Thad Allen. He more than meets the criteria, and God knows where we’d be without his service to the country and specifically the Gulf Coast.

Furthermore, there are very few people on the planet capable of entering unwinnable situations and turning them around. Thad Allen is one of those people. In a year where there has been so much strife and bickering, honoring an individual who is capable of bringing people together in the worst of conditions and helping them to work towards the future is a quality I would like to see highlighted this year. It would be an example to all of us to follow.

If I were an editor at TIME Magazine, he’d have my vote.

Below is an excerpt from my interview with the Commandant. Check out the full interview – it is a gold mine of information and candor.

“What skills do we need to be developing in the public and private sectors to better respond to disasters whenever they occur?

“Well, there are different capabilities and capacities that are needed at every level, but I think for the purpose of your question I might focus on senior leadership. I’ve been involved off and on with a program out of Harvard University called the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.

“I don’t want to single one program out, but I think it’s extremely useful to take a look at the work they’re doing on meta-leadership. The elements of that program are very important. If you look at Katrina and you look at the oil spill, a couple of those things really come into play. One of them is managing across a stove-piped organization.

“The other one is the interrelationship of subject-matter and political leaders, and how you manage their interface going forward. I’m a big supporter of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and this concept of meta-leadership.”

“Was there ever any point that you said to yourself, either during Katrina or the Gulf oil spill, “There”s no way to fix this situation and I need to get the hell out of here?””

“I think if you believe you’re going to get to a point where there’s no way to fix it and you have to leave, you shouldn’t take the job to begin with. You should take the job knowing that things may seem intractable, but part of the reason you’re there is to create the art of the possible even where it appears that none exists.

“Frankly, a lot of times the solutions to these very complex problems are really beyond the intellectual cognition capability of a single individual. You’ve got to get everybody in the room and pick their brains and do everything you can to make the situation right.

“In both cases [Katrina and the Gulf oil spill], I had conversations with my wife about whether or not we could be successful at this kind of a role, and while we talked about it – it was an interesting conversation – it didn’t play into my decision whether or not to take the job, because you’ve got to understand part of the reason you’re going to take the job in one of these things is people are going to expect you to create an opportunity where none exists.”

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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