What BP Needs: Leadership, Eisenhower-style

In case you were wondering why BP can’t seem to solve the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico , Carl Hiaasen has the answer. In his May 15 column, “BP oil spill: And a child shall lead them,” [Link to: Miami Herald] Hiaasen writes that BP has turned over its oil-spill stoppage to a 12-year-old boy who wrote a 250-word essay titled “How To Stop Undersea Oil Leaks Really Quick.”

The piece is funny (and painful) because it shows all too clearly why BP can’t stop the oil leak. No, it’s not lack of technology to stop the leak—although BP’s admission that it is considering shooting the leak full of old tires, golf balls and knotted ropes sounds as if the technology cupboard is bare. No, BP’s problem is its lack of leadership.

In Hiaasen’s story, when BP hires the fictional 12-year old (at a $350,000 annual salary—cheap for stopping a catastrophe), the boy is a student at the Dwight Eisenhower Middle School in Tulsa, Okla. And therein lies the real solution to BP’s leadership shortage: Dwight Eisenhower.

As we have just honored the memory of the fallen on Memorial Day and celebrated the victory won at Normandy on June 6, it’s a good idea to look at Eisenhower’s leadership on D-Day. Two specific actions mark Ike as a great leader, and a great man. The first action was making tough decisions. Every single decision Ike made leading up to the launching of the gigantic invasion would be measured in human life. Eisenhower was aware that even the loss of one life was devastating to the family back home. As the father of young boy who died, Ike could “never escape a recognition of fact that back home the news brings anguish and suffering to families all over the country.”

But someone had to make the decisions that would cause all that pain, and when it came to D-Day, that someone was Ike. He had to balance dozens of factors in the decision whether or not to launch Operation Overlord (as the invasion was code-named) in the wee hours of June 5. The rainy, windy weather made it look impossible to pull off Overlord. Ike’s meteorologist predicted a break in the storm, but if he was mistaken and the weather was too rough, soldiers could arrive on the beaches so seasick they couldn’t fight. If it was too cloudy, there would be no air support, endangering the troops on the beaches. But postponing the invasion had a terrible downside: the Germans would have more time to prepare a lethal welcome for the Allied troops.

Ike gambled on the weather and made the decision, saying “Okay, let’s go.” As we know today, Overlord was a magnificent success. Eisenhower had made the tough decisions, and made them correctly. But in the hours before the Allies hit Normandy, the results were still unknown. And that’s when Ike took the second action that proved his greatness: He accepted complete responsibility.

He wrote the following “just in case” press release before the troops had landed, before the results were known: “Our landings . . . have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. . . . The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

On June 5th, with thousands of lives hanging in the balance and millions waiting and hoping to be freed from Nazi tyranny, Eisenhower stared into the abyss of complete catastrophe and did not blink. He made the toughest decisions imaginable and then took complete responsibility for the results, no matter what the outcome.

“It is mine alone.” That’s leadership. A little bit of that would go a very long way in the executive suite at BP.

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6 Responses to What BP Needs: Leadership, Eisenhower-style

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    • Geoff Loftus says:

      Glad you liked the post. And I’m glad you requested they be longer — however, I tend to write longer pieces than most contributors at Forbes.com where I now blog regularly (http://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffloftus/), and to be honest, I’d be afraid to write longer. That seems to go against what most people expect in a blog. Thanks again for your nice comment.

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