StrategyDriven Editorial Perspective – Taking Decisive Action

History is replete with crisis so much so that their occurrence can be counted upon with some certainty. Crisis themselves create uncertainty but it is the response or lack of response to a crisis that creates the unnecessary uncertainty that often ripples through the marketplace, government agencies, and society.

”A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Rahm Emanuel
Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama

As suggested by Rahm Emanuel, those individuals and organizations responding well to a crisis garner acclaim. Likewise, those who do not respond decisively are scorned.

Poor crisis management by British Petroleum (BP) and the U.S. government in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is evident by the ongoing nature of this catastrophe and the devastation it has caused the people and property of the Gulf States. Examining this crisis reveals several inadequacies in the disaster response:

  • Delay in executing the initial event response – 9 days (time until Obama Administration acknowledges the “spill [is] of national significance”)1
  • Failure to apply all appropriate resources to the event response – ongoing refusal of the Obama Administration to lift the Jones Act restrictions and allow international skimming ships to aid in the oil spill clean-up2, 3
  • Delay in defining and executing on obvious goals – 12 days to begin drilling a relief well to stop the oil spill4
  • Faulted decision-making process – inaccurate assessment of the spill conditions, namely the late recognition of the significance/volume of oil leaking5, 6
  • Lack of leadership and coordination – initial and ongoing confusion between BP and U.S. government authorities as to which organization was in charge of the event response efforts7

Some would argue that not every event can be anticipated and that the Deepwater Horizon accident was one such incident. We would not argue that point. It is unreasonable to expect that every situation and circumstance be fully anticipated and planned for not to mention that such an effort would be cost prohibited. However, when unanticipated circumstances arise leaders must be prepared to act decisively based on their and their organization’s values and beliefs and a set of core emergency response principles. Some of these include:

Values and Beliefs

  • protecting of human life
  • protecting the environment
  • protecting property
  • acting ethically and with integrity
  • minimizing the impact of the event on all parties involved and effected

Core Emergency Response Principles

  • recognizing that an emergency condition exists
  • identifying the leader and the roles and responsibilities for all participants or groups of participants
  • accurately defining the problem in both quantitative and qualitative terms including potential future challenges based on other probable and impactful events
  • identifying all resources (personnel, materials, and equipment) available to support the event response effort
  • defining the desired outcomes consistent with the organization’s core values and goals
  • identifying the several options that will enable achievement of the desired outcomes; including risks (short and long term), costs, and benefits
  • prioritizing options and selecting the optimal solution
  • communicating and executing the chosen solution including contingency measures should the primary approach be ineffective
  • continuously monitoring and adjusting the chosen approach as necessary

The response to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and the Tylenol Crisis in 1982 serve as positive examples of values-based emergency responses following core response principles in the absence of pre-defined procedures. The decisive actions by Rudy Giuliani, the then mayor of New York City and the Johnson & Johnson executive team instilled confidence, minimized follow-on consequences, and expedited restoration from their respective event.

StrategyDriven Recommended Practices

For the past several weeks, we have discussed methods for identifying and preparing responses to probable events. The following recommended actions will help ensure leaders are prepared to response to unanticipated events in a manner that minimizes adverse consequences.

Unanticipated Event Response

  1. Clearly define organizational values understood and embodied by all organization members – An organization’s values serve as beacon against which all actions should be aligned and evaluated. Having a clearly defined set of documented organizational values provides responding executives and managers with a quantifiable basis against which to identify and evaluate response actions.
  2. Establish a commitment to adhering to the organization’s values over cost – Defined values are of little value unless organizational executives, managers, supervisors, and employees are willing to act on them even if doing so incurs additional cost. Gaining such commitment requires ongoing reinforcement to the principle of values over cost by all executives and managers during normal operations and event response periods.
  3. Define and train on a decision making and unanticipated event response processes – Individuals understanding and committed to the organization’s values may still not be capable of translating these into the needed timely response actions without decision-making and event response training. Such training should be periodically provided to all individuals at all levels of the organization.

Final Thought…

Decisive leaders are not impulsive. Quite the contrary, impulsive acts often diminish emergency response effectiveness. Decisive actions are timely, well thought out and consistent with the individual and organization’s values and beliefs. These actions follow the core emergency response principles. Their logic and structure are easily recognized, understood, and accepted by those implementing them, the public, and other interested stakeholders.

Final Request…

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  1. “Timeline of Gulf oil spill, government response,” The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, May 8, 2010 (
  2. “U.S. not accepting foreign help on oil spill,” Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, May 6, 2010 (
  3. “Jones Act Slowing Oil Spill Cleanup?” Brian Wilson, Fox News, June 10, 2010 (
  4. “Spill relief well draws scrutiny, fears,” Greg Bluestein and Jason Dearen, Associated Press, June 13, 2010 (
  5. “Timeline of Gulf oil spill, government response,” The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, May 8, 2010 (
  6. “Size of Oil Spill Underestimated, Scientists Say,” Justin Gillis, The New York Times, May 13, 2010 (
  7. “Gulf Cleanup of BP Oil Foiled by Leadership Confusion (Update1),” Jim Efstathiou Jr., Bloomberg Businessweek, June 10, 2010 (