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Johnson Institute Honors Admiral Thad Allen

03/31/2011

3/31/2011

Story by Christine Waller

Name some of the largest and most devastating crises that the U.S. has faced in recent history, and it is almost certain that Admiral Thad Allen (ret.) was there. Before retiring, Admiral Allen was the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard where he led recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina. More recently he led the federal government’s response to the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For his leadership during these crises and more, Admiral Allen is the recipient of this year’s Exemplary Leadership Award from the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership.

“Each year, we give this award to a person who demonstrates exemplary leadership as well as a commitment to the Johnson Institute’s core values of ethics, accountability and responsibility,” said Dr. Kevin Kearns, Director of the Johnson Institute.

Effective leadership is a particularly difficult challenge during times of turbulence or crisis, especially when a series of events conspire to create uncertainty and chaos for organizations, regions and communities.

While introducing Admiral Allen, Dr. Kearns said, “Such circumstances [crises] demand a brand of leadership that transcends any formal definition of leadership or list of tasks available in a text book.”

A few characteristics of leaders who succeed in a crisis include their ability to discern facts and understand the context. They establish priorities without ignoring long-term goals and solutions. They practice extraordinary communications skills, and they effectively delegate, direct and coordinate tasks.

“Above all,” said Dr. Kearns, “they lead ethically, with integrity and accountability.”

Admiral Allen is highly regarded by both Democrats and Republicans for his leadership, professionalism and integrity. In 2005, Admiral Allen was given full command of Katrina relief efforts and was chosen by President Obama to serve as the National incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill disaster. During the oil spill, Admiral Allen managed a volunteer core of 45,000 people. Before retiring at age 61, Admiral Allen served an illustrious career with the U.S. Coast Guard, achieving the rank of Admiral and serving in the highest position, Commandant.

Admiral Allen also shared his thoughts about leadership and expressed his gratitude for the Exemplary Leadership Award. His talk, entitled “Leadership in a Crisis,” identified a series of recent changes in the world that have complicated the way leaders manage complex events.

“In general, we’re dealing with a more complicated world that presents greater vulnerabilities,” Admiral Allen said. “We now have more people, and greater concentrations of them, living in coastal areas and large cities. We simply have more people at risk. We’re dealing with important challenges like climate change and global trade.”

In addition to society’s increased exposure to risk, Admiral Allen argued that new organizational forms that encourage public participation change how we should respond to a crisis.

“We will never have a disaster in this country, ever again, that does not involve the public,” Admiral Allen said. “They bring resources, passion and commitment to the cause. We must find outlets to bring these groups into our response.”

A third societal shift that has changed the way leaders manage a crisis includes the gamut of threats and other issues that do not have any notion of political boundaries.

“We’re talking about weather, germs, and data packages,” Admiral Allen said. “And the global commons are more challenging to manage than ever. These involve space, the internet and the ocean.”

For Admiral Allen, the goal is to not only prevent incidents from occurring.
“Our goal ought to be to interrupt the supply chain of trouble,” he said. “We can change regulatory systems for offshore drilling or raise safety standards for highway driving, but we can’t prevent everything from happening.”

Given this viewpoint of leadership, it is imperative that students of public policy learn basic skills and competencies that allow them to function at an optimal level against an unknown event.

“We need to create people who are going to be leaders of consequence when they’re called on to perform. Great leaders are great learners. You become a better leader by being a better person and you become a better person by being a better learner,” said Admiral Allen.

Admiral Allen’s methodology for responding to a crisis involves creating a mental model of what the problem is, correctly assessing what needs to be done and giving directions accordingly. Making decisions with a specific methodology equips leaders to explain their response process afterward, even if the outcome was not wholly successful.

Former Pennsylvania Governor and retired U.S. Attorney General, Dick Thornburgh, delivered a response to Admiral Allen’s presentation.

“Admiral Allen is a true exemplar of a leader,” Governor Thornburgh said. “We rely in this country on our supply of leaders in times of crisis.”

Governor Thornburgh understands what this reliance is about from firsthand experience managing the three-mile island nuclear disaster in 1979.

Great consensus was reached among all presenters that public servants have a much larger mandate than simply going to school and learning how a bureaucracy works.

“There’s a duty being placed on us to become bigger than we are,” Admiral Allen said. “The best definition of leadership that I know is that it is the ability to reconcile opportunity and competency.”

The Johnson Institute enhances professional and institutional ethics and accountability in public leadership through teaching, research, hands-on training programs, and the annual Exemplary Leadership Award ceremony. For more information, visit http://www.johnsoninstitute-gspia.org.
 

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Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
3601 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260