Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO has been dubbed the most hated Businessman in America in the wake of the Oil Spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. His removal was inevitable. But does it make much sense, beyond being a symbolic gesture of a leader falling on his sword?
There is little surprise in the news that Tony Hayward is to be removed as CEO of BP. The BBC’s Robert Peston among others felt that Hayward’s days were numbered from the earliest days of the Deepwater Horizon fatalities. Peston reveals that the BP board had decided that its future would require a new CEO:
Directors also felt that the sacrifice of Hayward should not happen until serious progress had been made on staunching the oil leak and until it was possible to quantify the financial cost of fixing the hole, providing compensation and paying fines. In the last couple of weeks, there has been such progress. And if the moment has more-or-less arrived for BP to start building a post-Macondo future, then it also needs a new public face, a new leader.
The most significant charge appears to be his ‘PR gaffes’.
The demonization of Hayward
Since the Oil-Spill a storm of adverse publicity has been sustained against him. President Obama joined in with remarks in a television interview that Mr Hayward “wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements”.
Mr Hayward has been demonised as being responsible for the world’s worst environmental disaster – and, let’s not forget, for the deaths of 11 men in the rig explosion that preceded it. Critics argue that, as the man in charge, it is Mr Hayward’s job to take the heat. Nor has he helped his cause with some misguided remarks about wanting his life back and optimistic comments about the clean-up operation. Other public relations own-goals included his refusal to answer questions put to him by a Congressional subcommittee and his decision to participate in a JP Morgan yacht race around the Isle of Wight. END
Leaders we deserve has followed this story closely. The background to Dr Hayward’s appointment in 2007 suggested that he had demonstrated top leadership potential, and had been selected for one of the most challenging of CEO positions with any global organization.
Growing stale in the saddle
CEO tenure remains a complex area for study. Danny Miller’s work is much quoted. He suggests although CEOs may ‘grow stale in the saddle’ that for many organizations, a change of CEO is most likely to take place only as a consequence of catastrophic performance. By generally accepted organizational criteria, Tony Hayward had appeared to making a good start in his job at BP. He declared intentions were to address issues to deal with unsatisfactory operational practices. But should he have been able to put enough changes in place to have prevented the specific errors that contributed to the catastrophe which led to the deaths of eleven people, and environmental disaster
What makes a good leader? How heroes become zeroes
Research into leadership has moved away from universalistic theories. We have stopped looking for presence or absence of a set of properties which differentiate a good leader from a bad one. Even success or failure of itself is insufficient to reveal a simple answer, because all leaders deal with uncertainties and make judgment calls.
In times of crisis, orchestrated anger against a leader builds up. His statements are analysed as evidence of his or her callousness, stupidity, duplicity. The symbolic significance of speech-acts are just as important as physical actions. Sound-bites become replicated in headlines and become elements within a dramatic narrative.
Psycho-analytical models of human behaviour suggest that social groups seek ways of dealing with fear and uncertainty which address inner phobias rather than practical means of overcoming unpleasant circumstances. Under stress and distress group members react as if a leader has betrayed them. According to one text-book such reactions draw on a basic assumption of dependency: a world in which
“The leader is the all-providing and all-knowing saviour who may also become another hate figure”
Lessons to be learned
Under such circumstances it becomes a social imperative to change the leader we have to the leader we deserve. There are lessons to be learned here, about leaders, dilemmas of leadership, and the social processes which result in complex issues being reduced to a leader’s incompetence.