Rich Cooper

Nov 11, 2010

There are people in life that most folks would like to go away.  For me, people like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and their respective train wreck families come to mind.  

For people on the Gulf Coast, former BP CEO Tony Hayward is undoubtedly in this category.  People of just about any geographic location or political persuasion would prefer that he go away and never show his face or open his mouth ever again. Cast by the media, pundits, environmentalists, politicians and much of the public as the absolute villain from this year’s catastrophic oil spill, Hayward stepped down this summer as the CEO of one of the world’s largest oil companies.   

Despite his previous successes at the company, Hayward could not survive his own verbal gaffes and the very public appearance that he was a man unable to fix what had gone terribly wrong.  He was, needless to say, a victim of the circumstances that were in his charge and was in effect, in Washington terms, “thrown under the bus.” The company needed a new public face and got one in the form of American Bob Dudley, who took over as CEO almost immediately after Hayward resigned in late July.

While BP may have a new leader and new public face looking to restore its public reputation and financial strength, there are lessons that all of us, most notably the private sector, can gain from Tony Hayward. And I’m not talking about the lessons about what not to say into a microphone in a disaster area.

This week, Tony Hayward re-emerged in an interview with the BBC to talk about the lessons learned from the oil spill. I think it is all too easy for any of us to want to discount or ignore his words. When you lead a company that is responsible for one of the planet’s biggest environmental disasters, it goes without saying that we would all just rather he shut up and go away never to be seen again. Tony Hayward could easily do that. He’s certainly wealthy enough to live out the rest of his life comfortably and with relative anonymity, but he’s made a choice not to fade away, and I think we should all hear him out.  

Hayward’s words about the preparedness of his company to deal with the oil spill are telling. He speaks of a company completely unprepared to deal with the overwhelming media onslaught and the challenges in responding to the unfolding disaster. He put no “spin” on what he’s saying either. He candidly admits that “BP”s contingency plans were inadequate. We were making it up day to day.”

I’m sure somewhere there is an ensemble of BP lawyers cringing at his honesty and an armada of Gulf Coast trial lawyers rubbing their hands together in glee at being able to use this statement in court. Hayward’s honesty is not just true about what BP went through, but I would argue it is the very state that many other corporations and government agencies find themselves in today. If put in circumstances similar to those Hayward and his company endured this summer, they too would probably be “making it up day to day” as well.

When looking at what BP went through this summer, there are very few leaders on the planet who could have survived that storm and still captain the ship in their charge. While you can certainly shape a disaster communications message plan and form contingency plans for a range of emergencies, when the event becomes as big as the spill was this summer, you really do end up at the mercy of the events around you. Former FEMA Administrator Mike Brown knows that based upon his Katrina experiences. I’d argue that now-former Dallas Cowboys Coach, Wade Phillips, learned that fact this week too.

The truth is there is a price that comes with leadership in disasters. There are those who can seemingly captain their way out of the worst of conditions (e.g., retired USCG Commandant Thad Allen) and those who, for right or wrong reasons, are thrown overboard and fed to the media, pundit and public sharks.

The facts are there is much that can be learned from those we have fairly and unfairly vilified as there are those for who we want to hold a parade and medal ceremony.

It is my hope that Hayward’s words and counsel are sought by corporations and organizations of every shape and size, particularly when it comes to helping them improve their overall readiness and contingency operations. Who better to learn from than a person who has been through hell fire and public damnation? While we can all shake our heads in collective frustration at the tragic costs and consequences of the Gulf oil spill, we put ourselves on a fast-track of repeating the same thing if we don’t take to heart the words of those who were there and understand what could be done better the next time.

Tony Hayward, to his credit, had the courage and guts to say what needed to be said. We can continue to vilify him if we want, but that says more about us than it does about him. There are lessons to be learned, and everything he’s said in this interview bears listening to.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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