It’s been over eighty days since BP’s rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Tar balls are now reaching the coast of 5 states. It’s a huge relief to know that finally the spill has been contained. There has been precious little light down this dark tunnel. Still, we do see a silver lining for leadership in this disaster. We hope that it will serve as a call to business leaders to become conscientious stewards not only of their company but also those impacted by their actions.
This explosion, much like the Challenger and its fateful o-rings, will be analyzed by social scientists trying to make sense of the human dynamics that led up to it. When it comes to leadership that’s a conversation we feel compelled to contribute to. Both of us started our leadership consulting careers working for Amoco, later acquired by BP. We felt proud as Amoco/BP became the leading energy company company in terms of sustainable development. BP-America’s President, Lamar McKay managed production when we worked there. We remember Lamar as a good guy to work for so it is painful to see his beleaguered face on TV as he offers meager responses to angry citizens, media and politicians. At the same time, we can hardly believe the level of the catastrophe caused by BP’s accident. It is painful to think about the loss of human life, the economic impact to those whose livelihood depends on the Gulf, and the colossal environmental damage to our Gulf Stream waters. Patty was raised on the Alabama Coast, now in jeopardy as black goo laps up on the pristine white sand of Gulf Shores. How could BP, the energy company known for strong environmental stewardship, have taken such a wrong turn? Most information in the media simplifies this wrong turn as simply unadulterated greed. If that is true, how could those nice guys we know arrive at such cold, calculating decisions? Were they always so disconnected from the things that will matter on their death beds – things like family, honor, community, integrity, respect for mother earth – and the proud legacy of an upstanding career? After a combined 35 years supporting leaders in Corporate America, we see that it isn’t just greed that drives managers to lose their way. Rather, it is a slow loss of integrity that is dismantled one pressure driven decision at a time – pressure to “make the numbers” that comes from bosses, boards, and stock market analysts. In our “cash is king”, “time is money” culture, there is a singular focus on the numbers. Short term tangible measures beat less concrete concerns for people and planet right out of the equation. In their hearts, leaders may be all for values, safety and sustainability, but they lose sight of that as their heels are bitten by competition that will lap them if they don’t make quick and often risky decisions. It is the rare leader that has the courage, skills and tools to address deeper concerns and drive business success under time pressures. Is it possible that this disaster could change that? We stand for using this catastrophe as our teacher. It can be the teacher that reminds us that a singular drive to make the numbers ultimately doesn’t work. The equation for success requires stellar leadership to handle high risk decisions. These days the Internet makes the negative consequences of unsound decisions more visible than ever before. Have you seen that 24X7 webcam video of the oil pouring out of the well? The quick chase after the single bottom line is no longer a viable business model. You need only look at BP’s recent stock dive to prove that. We can change the paradigm of leadership by teaching the skills needed to drive to the triple bottom line, balancing people, planet AND profits. If this conversation interests you, please join us in the important work of reconnecting business leaders to the reality that they lead people, not numbers.
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