Why Thad Allen is a change hero

by | May 9, 2011 | Blog | 2 comments

"Where's Waldo?" Photo by Daniel Bachuber

If you and/or your executives are wondering whether transparency and social media are fads, meet the very modern retired US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

Admiral Allen spoke bluntly about how leaders need to adapt to today’s changing times, including social media, in his May 4 keynote address to the Association of Change Management Professionals conference.  In particular, he said leaders need to listen to diverse voices, be transparent, and continually learn.

This American hero has practiced what he preaches—multiple times—and often during crises. For example, he played major roles in the federal government’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11.

During his hour-long address to 700 change management professionals, the retired Baby Boomer spoke eloquently without notes or PowerPoint slides about change, leadership, and communication. Here are headline statements of his key points:

About leadership, especially change leadership

  • “Leadership is the ability to reconcile opportunity and competency.”
  • “The second law of thermodynamics guarantees that change is a constant.”
  • “Change is like the weather. It just is. The status quo is an oxymoron.”
  • “You need to help people understand the context so they can understand the cause to action.”
  • “You’ve got to understand the problem first” before you can effectively lead change.
  • “When everyone knows what the problem is, they can self-align and feel empowered to act.”
  • “You have to bring everyone under the same tent.”
  • “Great leaders are great learners.”
  • “Everybody can learn to be a better leader from where they are today.”
  • If we need a separate department to handle change, something is wrong with our organizations.”

About crises

  • “The only difference between change and a crisis is that in a crisis, time is compressed.”
  • “In a crisis, you often have to act fast because your windows of opportunity will close. That’s what happened with Hurricane Katrina.”
  • The problem with the government’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina was that “we did not get the problem statement right.” The government thought the problem  was a hurricane when it had become a flood.
  • “Preparing for managing change in a crisis comes from managing change well on a daily basis.”
  • The key criteria for choosing your crisis team are “experience, leadership, and diversity of thought.”
  • “You have to have unity of effort” to work through change regardless of in a crisis or in an ongoing organization.

About communication

  • “The media, web, weather, and politics are what they are. You’ve got to figure out how to accommodate them to succeed.”
  • “Media belongs to the masses now. If you don’t speak, you abdicate and others will fill that space.”
  • “You have to have frank communication early, especially if you have a small window of opportunity. You don’t want to wait and have that window close.”
  • “Use the children’s game ‘Where’s Waldo?’ as your guide.” Provide so much information through social media and other channels that people will have their fill and can find what interests them.
  • If you want to be credible, you have to be transparent and work out in the open. Admiral Allen talked about the Deepwater Horizon oil workers who were uneasy about capping the oil well with video cameras turned on them. His response: If the New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees can throw a football with millions watching, you too can do your job under surveillance.

Admiral Allen’s vast experience with highly-politicized crises offers the rest of us great guidelines for leading change. As he also advised, we have to keep the faith and believe we can change our organizations from any position and level.

On the topic of leveraging social media for organizational change, which I talked about at this conference, I noticed a disconnect between what change leaders are doing personally and professionally.

According to the polls I took during my session, a vast majority of those in the room were using Facebook and LinkedIn. Yet hardly any were taking an active role in helping their leaders or their organizations adopt social media.

For example, very few had introduced social media policies. Hardly anyone was setting objectives with metrics for success. Nor were many coaching or advising leaders in how to best use social media. In my experience, all of these steps are  hallmarks of successful social media use. (Granted, most of the attendees at the conference are change management professionals, so they may not be as involved in communication support as employee communication and social media professionals. Nonetheless, these are critical actions to take.)

So how are you leading and communicating about change? And what are you doing to leverage social media effectively?


  1. Michael Nestor

    Great article that captures the true essence of Admiral Allen’s speech. An Inspiration!

  2. Deb Nystrom

    Love this Liz! It’s a terrific synopsis. I’m so glad I could meet you IRL (in real life) at the conference. BTW to the comment readers, we have videos of Liz on CMRsite.com. Come by and see Liz do her thing there.

    I was also amused at the hashtag stuff. Glad that we later settled on the more efficient #acmp11.

    Happy May! ==Deb


  1. Change Heroes & Leaders: Thad Allen & Daryl Conner Influencers video, ACMP11 | Liz & Deb - Change Management Resources - [...] Liz’ full post via connectconsultinggroup.com This full post was originally listed via Reveln [...]

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