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Admiral Thad Allen explains leadership during crisis

Former Sloan Fellow speaks with Dean Schmittlein about response to Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Admiral Thad Allen, left, talks with David Schmittlein, John C. Head III Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Admiral Thad Allen, left, talks with David Schmittlein, John C. Head III Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Photo: L. Barry Hetherington

There are two things one can always expect in a national crisis: media and politics.

Neither can be ignored, and to think otherwise is a losing move, said Admiral Thad Allen, the retired U.S. Coast Guard commandant who led the response to last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Allen graduated from the MIT Sloan School of Management's one-year Sloan Fellows program with an SM degree in 1989.

Allen, in a frank conversation with David Schmittlein, Sloan's John C. Head III Dean, at Alumni Weekend in May, gave MIT Sloan alumni an inside look at the challenge of leading a coordinated response to an unprecedented set of problems.

Allen showed no great love for the political controversies and media uproars that accompanied each of his decisions — but he did not dismiss them, either.

"We live in a world right now where we will never have a major event that doesn't have public participation," Allen said. Failure to anticipate, include and respond to criticism will only "impact the credibility of the response," he added.

During the Deepwater Horizon crisis, Allen led proactive communications, launching an oil-spill web-based map on to put some of the government's best information in the hands of the general public. He used the same map to brief President Obama and Vice President Biden.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Allen and his team were tasked with closing the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, balancing input from a tremendous list of stakeholders: national politicians, six state governors, Louisiana parish presidents, government science entities, BP, traditional media, social media, the fishing industry and more.

Balancing all those interests requires a "cognitive diversity" that, managed properly, can provide great gains of collective intelligence, Allen said.

The pressure was intense, but Allen is a veteran of disasters: He led the government response to Hurricane Katrina, was in Haiti soon after last year's earthquake, and controlled the Coast Guard in New York Harbor after Sept. 11. Before heading to the Gulf last year, he told his wife he was "not sure there's a chance to succeed in this thing" and accepted the great possibility of being fired within a matter of weeks.

"You need to learn how to manage your own morale," Allen said. He talked about emotional intelligence and the learned ability to monitor his own feelings in the midst of devastation and high-stakes response work.

Allen, now a senior fellow at RAND Corporation, said MIT Sloan was a crash course in emerging technologies and team management — he has read The Fifth Discipline, Senior Lecturer Peter Senge's organizational learning classic, seven times — which served him well in dealing with complex engineering and science problems.

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