BP leadership and the line between determination and obsession

Author Shahzad Khan

by Shahzad Khan

John Brown, former CEO of BP wrote in his biography of the dangers of losing balance when ‘determination and enthusiasm turn into obsession’. The outcomes of his leadership and that of his successor Tony Hayward seem to confirm this

BP is a major energy company globally in terms of oil and gas reserves. Its progress has been accompanied by a range of mergers and acquisitions (US Standard Oil Company, Britoil North Sea Exploration Company, ARCO, Amoco, Solarex and Burma’s Castrol.) However, the company’s growth has been accompanied by a number of accidents and safety-related violations which have had tragic environmental and personal consequences.

Lord Browne the deal maker

Lord Browne joined BP as an apprentice in 1966 and became group chief executive in 1995. He was credited for much of BP’s success during his 12 year reign. He is considered a charismatic deal maker. His political connections with head of states were reported as significant negotiations in some of his business deals. Such a high-profile leader is seen as achieving the positive but also the negative results of his organization. Lord Browne was eventually forced to resign in 2007 three years ahead of his planned departure from the company for a personal scandal.

After its merger with Amoco in 1999, the former British Petroleum company was renamed and rebranded with a new Helios logo associated with the Sun God Helios. The media even began to label Lord Browne as the new Sun King.

The rise and fall of Tony Hayward

His favored replacement Tony Hayward was also to be forced to resign. The press seized on remarks cited by Harvard business guru Rosabeth Moss Cantor:

About a week after the April 20 explosion, Hayward was quoted in the New York Times asking his executive team, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” Recently, he declared that “I want my life back.”

The dark side of charismatic leadership?
The patterns of behavior of both BP leaders is similar can be found in discussion of dilemmas of charismatic leadership by the American leadership scholar Jay Conger. Both Browne and Hayward believed in their ‘visions’. Admiration by media and business associates fuelled their charismatic styles. The dark side of Lord Browne as mentioned in his own accounts is that commitment to his vision for the company’s future meant that he ignored day to day operations of the core business activity. Someone noted that he used “I” a lot versus “we” in his book, in reference to BP’s successes. He may also fit a description of a pseudo level-five leader by Jim Collins: someone with an inflated ego presenting or promoting themselves as the most valuable asset for the company. One lesson from these cases may be the danger of letting a vision blind a leader from evidence that things are going seriously wrong at ground level.

To go more deeply

1. Mason, R. (2010). Beyond business: by Lord Browne: a review. The Telegraph
2. Irving, C. (2010). Why is BP’s former boss a UK hero? The Daily Beast
3. Campbell, R. (2007). BP corporate culture lambasted. Thompson Reuters,
4. Salama, A, Holland, W and Vinten, G. (2003) Challenges and opportunities in mergers and acquisitions: three international case studies-Deutsche Bank-Bankers Trust; British Petroleum-Amoco; Ford-Volvo, Journal of European industrial training 27(6), 313-321.
5. Kanter, R.M. (2010). BP’s Tony Hayward and the failure of leadership accountability. Harvard business school publishing

6 After the post was written: The Guardian reported that Lord Browne is considering acquiring assets up for sale by his old organization [Editor, LWD].

The case was written from an assignment prepared as past of the Global Events and Leadership module which introduces the Manchester Business School’s Global MBA program. The views expressed are those of the author.


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