BP’s Other Toxic Spill

I’m a regular contributor, writing about topics of leadership, to Faith and Leadership, the online discussion for issues of the Church, sponsored by Duke Divinity School.

Since I’m from Mississippi, their editor, Dr. Jason Byassee, asked me to write this month about the gulf oil spill.

Getting all I might want to say into their limited word count is difficult.  So here is the first part (they had to cut for space) and then it picks up with the article running on their blog:

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BP’s Other Toxic Spill

Here in Mississippi, the oil spill in our Gulf is personal.

It is our families who will be bankrupt because of tourism losses, our wetlands and beaches trashed for years to come, our fish and wildlife threatened, and our coastline home prices that will plunge.

Most tragically, it is our spirit that has been broken by BP.

After five years of tenaciously pulling our bootstraps to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina’s head-on collision with the Mississippi coast, we in the Gulf are now held hostage to an oil company who will not tell us what the future holds.

Katrina brought us to our knees.  The oil spill brings us to tears.

While their oil flow pollutes our environment and our economy, BP’s other toxic spill of misinformation has become just as damaging.  Their limited communication, filled with blaming, selfishness, and the slow drip of compounding uncertainty, magnifies the pain of the crisis.

If we had we known what was coming from the beginning (up to 40,000 barrels a day instead of only 1,000), we’d have reached for our bootstraps again and worked for solutions. All we’d ask now is to know as much as they know, even if they don’t have all the answers. Isn’t that what all of us want when we feel overwhelmed in a crisis?

In the Church, all leaders will eventually be called on to manage a crisis that is beyond our control.  And while pressing to finding solutions to the problem itself — economic challenges, moral failing, or dramatic change in direction — we must also communicate properly to those in our care, so we don’t also create a subsequent culture of anxiety that will become even more damaging than our root challenge.

A popular poster from the satirical Despair.com reads, “The secret to success is knowing who to blame for your failures.” And placing blame on those whom God has entrusted to us in ministry is just about that blatantly silly.  Leaders who carry the burden of bad news will be respected and trusted in the long run and are best equipped to offer comfort in time of crisis.

Three tools are critical for sharing bad news without placing blame.

Be Direct

Bad news needs to be shared quickly as soon as the initial facts can be gathered and the analysis of the situation is clear.

Occasionally leaders who enjoy the spotlight will rush the stage, running ahead of the assessment, but doing so creates mistrust if the information is not reliable. More typically leaders try to shield or downplay the bad news from others with the hope that a solution can be found before the circumstances become public.

Those under your care are part of the solution to any problem and you need them to know so they can help you.  Further, they are most likely to be resilient in the pain of a crisis when brought into the discussion early rather than being held at arm’s length.

Be Disclosing

The Apollo 13 spacecraft trouble became known to the world with the infamous words “Houston, we have a problem . . . ”.

Don’t sugarcoat, underplay, or discount the fullness of your challenge.  If the scope of the problem is uncertain, it is better to discuss the worst case among the possibilities and later to be pleasantly surprised than to offer rose coloring that is the first of many disappointments.

Good news can be leaked, allowing it to spread across your ministry team because it is likely to retain its integrity of factual base. But bad news must be announced, or the gossip and speculation will run far ahead of the facts.  Without the full story, those in your care will become fearful, assumptions will run rampant, and energy will be drained by uncertainty.

Be Discreet

It is important to understand the difference between correcting and blaming. The first is done in private. The second occurs in public.

Leaders must privately correct those who make mistakes and create personal growth plans to assure coworkers learn to fulfill their responsibilities. Part of that entails the leader forgiving for the mistake so they can get a fresh start and move forward rather than being weighed down by their errors. This is much different from pointing out the flaws of others publicly.

Shouldering blame won’t hurt leaders in the long term. But even if it does, the Bible clearly guides us on this point: “Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong!” (1 Peter 3:17).

Leadership during a crisis demands that we present the facts as fully and accurately as we can. This is a time when others need to feel confident they know as much as the leader about the challenge. Leaders may have learned to live comfortably with a high level of ambiguity and uncertainty, but others have not and they need to have as much detailed information as possible.

Leaders who cannot transparently define the problem in a crisis cannot be trusted to find a viable solution.  Having all the answers is not vital. “I don’t know” is not a bad answer if you don’t know.  But others will only trust you in the eventual solution if you don’t disguise the struggle ahead.

Whether you’re the fourth largest company in the world or a ministry leader in a crisis, trust cannot be bought with public relations campaigns.  One of these days soon, BP will tell us they have the crisis fixed and new safeguards in place to assure we will never have another oil spill like this. Will you believe them?

Roger Parrott is President of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.  He is the author of The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders (David C. Cook).

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