Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 26, 2010 9:19 AM
Tony Hayward's expected departure as CEO of BP today won't be the biggest surprise; the surprise is that it's taken so long. (I called publicly for his resignation some time ago.) The Case of Tony Hayward and the Gulf Oil Spill will be fodder for business school discussions for years to come, as a how-not-to-do-it guide for leadership when disaster strikes.
Mr. Hayward must have studied management in a parallel universe, where a set of anti-rules for bad leadership are taught. Here's what I imagine are those anti-rules.
Deny and minimize problems. Drop any mention of the high-minded principles you announced at the beginning of your term, such as safety and a culture that puts people first. Sweep them under the rug as you play down the significance of the crisis. Or better yet, find someone else to blame—a supplier, a business partner, a lowly employee or two.
Emphasize your own power and importance. Keep yourself front and center all the time. Rarely bring forward the rest of the team, nor even indicate that it's a team effort.
Make the story all about you. Talk about your heavy burdens and the costs to your life. When forced to acknowledge the true victims, pay lip service.
Never apologize, and don't even pretend to learn from your mistakes. Brush off public disapproval, and persist in the same mindless behavior that provoked criticism in the first place.
Hang onto your job even when it's clear you should go, in order to negotiate the highest severance package, whether you deserve it or not. Don't even consider a deferred resignation to allow for smooth suggestion. Cling to power, and keep everyone guessing to the very end.
Just reverse these rules, and the outcome could have been different. Good leaders must face facts, prepare for the worst case scenario, draw on the whole team, show constant concern for stakeholders, acknowledge mistakes and not make the same ones twice, and do the honorable thing if getting in the way of company progress. BP, in fact, mobilized thousands of employees and former employees from around the world to work on the Gulf Oil spill; the saga of Mr. Hayward now seems peripheral to the main action.
"A 28-year career doing the right things to rise to the top of a major company, and now he's an anti-leadership case—you have to feel compassion for him," a reporter said, trying to provoke me. I wasn't provoked. Compassion is as compassion does. Mine was reserved for the victims, the ones who died in the explosion of the oil platform, the ones whose livelihoods were destroyed with the marine ecosystem, and even, to a lesser extent, the BP employees certain to lose their jobs as the company shrinks or disappears, not to mention the widows and orphans whose BP stock lost half its value. Tony Hayward's attention should have been first and foremost on all of them.
When an executive becomes responsible for the fate of a company, he gets power, privilege, and enormous pay. He is expected to act to enhance the institution, not to undermine it. Of course, his departure will not save BP nor miraculously reverse the damage. But Hayward's departure allows BP to grab a broom for a clean sweep and fresh start—the reason I argued in my book Confidence that turnarounds require new top leaders. This event might strike another blow to the cult of the heroic CEO, which my colleague Rakesh Khurana has to powerfully challenged in Searching for a Corporate Savior. It is certainly an object lesson for all aspiring leaders about what not to do.