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Resilient Leadership: BP and its Fallen Leader

A Perspective about BP and its Fallen Leader

by Rob Weinhold

When we learned of the Gulf oil explosion in April 2010, the loss of life coupled with the hourly projections about environmental fallout was disturbing enough. However, to learn that BP had no real crisis plan or immediate solution to deal with this type of incident immediately instilled a sense of anger among many stakeholders.

One of the biggest “eye brow raising moments” early on was to watch BP executives on NBC’s Today Show respond to a question/statement by an anchor during an interview. The question to the executive was “You had no crisis plan to deal with this, did you?” Well, the executive did not answer the question and quickly directed his response in another direction, never answering the “yes or no” question. Clearly, BP was at a loss on how to handle this catastrophic, yet predictable event.

It is true, based on the continual resulting blunders that BP did not have a handle on how to effectively communicate with all of its stakeholders during the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Adversity is the truest test of leadership and BP failed the test due to poor planning and execution. The very basic tenants of crisis leadership did not present themselves in this case. While many suffered, top executive Tony Hayward gave the public impression that he cared more about how his life was disrupted than the millions who depend on BP from a financial or livelihood standpoint.

Comments Mr. Hayward made about how he “wanted his life back” or how he minimized the leak because the leak was occurring in “a big ocean” were bad enough, but the symbolic participation in a yacht race during a time of crisis sent the wrong message to many whose quality of life still remained in the balance. While Mr. Hayward apologized and made later attempts to explain his comments and actions, the court of public opinion already rendered a verdict.

Of the many milestone events which ultimately led to Mr. Hayward’s dismissal, one particular event negatively impacted his career, BP’s stock and sent the BP brand cascading downward like no other. That event was the Congressional hearings where all company executives involved decided to point the finger at one another. The resulting public message was a failure to take responsibility. In fact, the President of the United States stood-up and said he was “not impressed” by that spectacle. Yes, now the leaders of three major corporations were being admonished publically by the World’s most influential leader.

Main Tenants of Resilient Leadership

The fact is, during times of crisis, leaders become fatigued and often misstep. In BP’s case, Hayward didn’t have what Dr.’s George Everly and Doug Strouse refer to in their book (The Secrets of Resilient Leadership, 2010) as Behavioral Body Armor. As highlighted in the book and many other publications, resilient leadership has a few main tenants which should never be violated. They include:

1. Act with integrity
2. Communicate effectively
3. Display optimistic, decisive leadership
4. Take responsibility for actions
5. Build a resilient culture
6. Develop behavioral body armor

I wholeheartedly recommend that leaders at every level of management in both the public and private sector, personally or professionally, embrace these principles. Had BP crisis planned before the incident, been forthright with information and followed the six basic tenants above, we all might have a different perspective.

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