On January 16 this year, terrorists attacked a gas plant at In Amenas in Algeria. During the four days of the hostage situation, 39 foreign workers, a security guard and 29 militants were killed.
Among the victims were five employees of Statoil, the Norwegian oil and gas company that operated the plant with BP and Algerian state oil company Sonatrach.
Helge Lund, the chief executive of Statoil, found himself facing an extreme test. What leadership challenges did he have to contend with during the attack and what we can learn from the way he handled them?
The attack was not the first time Statoil, which operates in 34 countries, had experienced a tragic incident with deadly outcomes. However, terrorism is something unique. Each attack is unpredictable. It is difficult to prepare detailed plans and there are few, if any, similar incidents. Lund did not have any prior experience with such attacks but people nevertheless looked to him for guidance.
At the same time as the pressure increased, Lund’s power to affect the situation decreased. A terrorist attack quickly becomes a political event.
When In Amenas was attacked, the Algerian government and military immediately took charge of the situation. At this stage, Lund was put in a marginal position. His power and competence as a chief executive were not needed in the early stages.
Relatives and colleagues of those involved, together with the public at large, expected Statoil’s chief executive to be personally accessible to them. The expectations were caused by strong emotions of grief, insecurity and anger. In such situations, people wanted to see Lund himself. Human resources personnel and priests may have supported him, but the chief executive was expected to be present.
The symbolic role of the chief executive became particularly important during the attack.
Not only those directly involved but also the public at large needed a leadership figure who could symbolise attitudes and actions that kept the spirit up. Being available to the media was especially important. The situation was ambivalent. Lund had to be open and truthful about what was going on, and appear trustworthy. Yet at the same time he needed to keep essential facts confidential in order not to undermine the military action that was under way.
At the time of the attack, Lund was on a business trip to Asia. He immediately went home to be present and available.
The hunger for information was almost endless. The company’s communications department played an important role, but Lund chose to be present himself, and meet people face to face. In this way he managed to carry part of the emotional burden for those who were most hurt.
In a company such as Statoil, with 23,000 employees in 34 countries, there are of course practical limitations to communicating in this way. But the fact that he was present for those directly involved also gave him legitimacy among others who had to observe him at a distance.
All in all, it was striking how necessary it was for Lund, as a chief executive, to have emotional reactions and relations as his main focus, especially in the most critical stages of the crisis. If he had left that task to human resources or a company priest, I think his authority to handle the rest of the crisis, as it moved into a more rational stage, would have been seriously undermined.
Later, when the situation was over, a special commission investigated the incident. It concluded that Statoil could not have avoided the terrorist attack. The commission did, however, come up with 19 recommendations on how Statoil could have improved their security, both at In Amenas and elsewhere.
Lund had to face the fact that ultimately he was responsible for the insufficient security. The issue was raised of whether he should resign as chief executive.
He took responsibility for the lack of adequate security, not by stepping down, but by improving safety and making security a top priority in all of Statoil’s operations.
The message he sent by this was that after a serious crisis, it is more responsible to keep on going and try to learn as much as possible from the tragic incident, than to resign and withdraw, and leave the correction of previous mistakes to others. In my book, that is good leadership.
Tom Colbjørnsen is president of BI Norwegian Business School