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BP v Obama – whatever happened to leadership?

Jun 27, 2010 Leadership, Sunday Nation

I have been watching the unfolding oil spill drama with a mixture of horror and amazement. As someone who believes in the power of corporations to do good, and in the power of leadership to transform, I am dumbstruck by what I see and hear.

The facts you know: toxic oil is spewing from a deep-sea well off US shores, and there is no end in sight. This is already by far the worst such disaster seen in America, and no one can really predict how bad it’s going to get. The spill, caused by an explosion, is already more than 2 months old. It has cost its owner, BP, more than half its market value plus $2 billion in costs to date.

If there is a job in the world you would not want today, it is that held by BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward. It would give you $5 million annually in cash and bonuses, but you would still run away. “Toxic Tony” has become America’s most reviled figure of late, a man right up there with Saddam Hussein and co in the American pantheon of popular villains. As images of slicked-out oceans and dead fishes and birds and newly poverty-stricken coast dwellers fill the TV screens, Tony’s popularity finds new lows every day.

How does a CEO become so hated? Well, I’m afraid its mostly his own fault. From the outset, Hayward has done himself no favours whatsoever. His gaffes and blunders continue. Let’s look at the impressive list of “never dos” in crisis management that Hayward has clocked up.

First, when disaster strikes, you never downplay it falsely. Hayward did precisely that. He made banal utterances about the explosion and resulting spill being minor events, and the ocean being a large thing. He underplayed the scale of the spill to ridiculous levels.

Second, if you are the boss you take responsibility and never blame others. Hayward immediately sought to blame a contractor, Transocean, for the explosions that resulted in 11 deaths. He only belatedly began to accept that BP bore primary responsibility.

Third, you never focus on yourself, only on the victims. Tony Hayward made ridiculously ill-advised comments about wanting “his life back” – forgetting that his company’s negligence had cost eleven people theirs. And just last week, after a bruising session with US congressmen where he was roundly criticised, Hayward chose to go sailing off the English coast. Amazing stuff – you couldn’t make it up.

Enter President Barack Obama. Now, as you know, I have a lot of time for Obama and still hold high hopes for his presidency. But here I’m afraid our homeboy Barack has not covered himself in glory. Initially, he simply didn’t react to the disaster in any meaningful way. For this, he suffered a roasting in the American media, where he was accused of not “showing enough emotion” and not spending time on the beaches with the victims.

President Obama seemed severely stung by this, so much so that of late he is hardly seen anywhere else other than on that oil-slicked coastline, and has hardly made a statement about any other issue in the world. But to no avail. The world’s most powerful man is powerless to stop the oil gushing. Frustrated, he has channelled all his energy onto a single target: BP.

Here too, he has failed. Obama has turned himself into a victim and an activist. He has talked about “kicking ass” and intimated that he would not keep employing the hapless Hayward if it were his decision. All of that talk does just one thing: display his powerlessness to all and sundry. He has relegated himself to a shouting-on-the-sidelines role – and that is no place for the world’s most powerful executive to be sitting. A seasoned leader would quietly be summoning BP’s most senior figures to his office and laying down the law and working out what to do, not berating them in the media like an ordinary commentator.

With an eye on his wilting popularity he at last took some decisive action: forcing BP to agree to a $20 billion compensation fund for the victims. He did this during an official address from his famous Oval Office. Again, I was deeply disappointed. A crisis is not a time for lofty speeches: it is a time to announce specific, concerted actions. President Obama, as is often his wont, chose noble-sounding platitudes over precise information and initiatives.

An example: “Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.” Actually, now is not the moment for generations to worry about national missions and destinies – it is a time to stop the mess. Save it for campaigns, Barry. This airy-fairy talk is becoming a bad habit, especially when it takes the place of immediate action.

Leadership DOES matter in a crisis. But in this one we haven’t seen much of it yet.

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