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3 leadership lessons from Admiral Allen

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

By Scott Eblin

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet and learn from someone I’ve admired for the past five years—former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.

Most Americans first became aware of Allen when he led the disaster response to Hurricane Katrina following the dismissal of FEMA director Michael Brown. This past summer, President Obama appointed Allen 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 in January as Coast Guard cutters stationed off Haiti provided the first U.S. relief in the hours after the quake. 

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

1. 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. 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, Miss. 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 them up. Although 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, including Gen. Russell Honore, to coordinate a response that positioned the 82nd Airborne, the Coast Guard and the National Guard to conduct rescue and recovery efforts.

2. 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, even though most of the government officials were still in place. Allen was able to leverage what he learned from Katrina to establish a relief process in Haiti that put the U.S. ambassador in place as the lead representative to Haiti.

3. Coordinate your efforts: 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 entities, Allen says you have to avoid what he calls a Blues Brothers situation: Everyone is on a mission from God and can end up working at cross purposes.

Allen takes the time to think through the problem and then sets up processes that enable others to work it.

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