How BP Incident Commander Thad Allen Manages Disasters

Last Updated Oct 21, 2010 3:12 PM EDT

Reading Scott Berinato's terrific interview for Harvard Business Review with retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the point man who ran the government's BP oil spill recovery, I learned that Allen had also helped turn around the government's initial botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

Seems to me that if someday you are called upon to manage a work crisis, here are three things to keep in mind from the master of disaster.

  1. Create a unity of effort. "In what I would call a 'whole of government response'--to a hurricane, an oil spill, no matter what it is--that chain of command doesn't exist," Allen says. "You have to aggregate everybody's capabilities to achieve a single purpose, taking into account the fact that they have distinct authorities and responsibilities. That's creating unity of effort rather than unity of command, and it's a much more complex management challenge."
  2. Use mental models. "I'm a big fan of Peter Senge, at MIT, who talks about learning organizations and the use of mental models. You have to understand at a very large, macro level what the problem is that you're dealing with and what needs to be done to achieve the effects you want--and you have to be able to communicate that. You also have to create a set of shared values that everybody involved can subscribe to."
  3. Lead from everywhere. Balance your time between the command center, out talking to stakeholders, and directing troops in the field. "You have to manage your schedule to make sure that you're where you need to be, and come back on a routine basis to reinforce what you're trying to do."
Allen has truly impressive leadership abilities, and its good to know that he works hard at keeping them tuned up. Read the whole post, You Have to Lead from Everywhere, for more great insights into crisis management

Have you ever had to manage a disaster response? Tell us about what you learned.

(Image courtesy United States Coast Guard)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.