Gulf Oil Disaster – A Failure of Leadership?

Let’s talk about the worst environmental disaster in history happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico.  What a calamity – and now the blame game begins.  How did we get to this?  Did BP and its exploration partners have some really bad luck that fateful day – sure.  Were there indications that this might happen – almost definitely.  And the rabid political ideologues would even like to smear Obama with blame.  Where’s the truth?  BP, its partners and regulators all share in the responsibility.

In a San Francisco Chronicle interview, UC Berkeley disaster scholar Karlene Roberts  brings an interesting view.  “Look at the oil spill problem.  Everyone thinks it’s a technological problem.  It’s not.  It’s a management problem.”  Roberts has found over the years that the root of refinery disasters can be tracked back to organizational cultures that created conditions where a disaster was more likely to happen.  In this case he faults organizational issues at BP and the Minerals Management Service – neither party, he asserts, adequately evaluated the probability that the well could blow and what the consequences would bring.

So where’s the failure of leadership here?  As a best in class environmental oil company BP certainly has voices within that could see the risk – what happened to those voices – were they disregarded, marginalized?  What conditions allowed for this?  The same can be asked of their partners and regulators – all hard working, presumably competent people who can see clearly.  Somehow what was being discussed among some never made it to the decision table and now, for decades to come, the US Gulf Coast will pay an environmental, economic and human toll that is immeasurable.

Let’s ask ourselves – what voices in our midst do we silence or marginalize – and at what cost?  Just for today, choose one of those voices and take it in, imagine you lend it credence – what is it telling you and what causes you to shun it?  It may not be completely right, but as you take it in, your perspective may widen and something new may become possible.  Try that courageous act, just for today.

bob devlin
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