John Browne: Great leaders need to be authentic

The former BP boss says that for leaders, the personal is inseparable from the professional.

by Lord Browne
Last Updated: 02 Jan 2017

MT welcomed former BP boss Lord (John) Browne to speak at last month's Britain's Most Admired Companies awards ceremony. Here's what he had to say on purpose, authenticity and inclusion. 

When I was CEO of BP, I was acutely aware that life inside a company is a bubble. It is dangerously easy forget about the world around you. This means that constant vigilance is needed. Leaders have to be driven by the needs of their customers, their staff and the communities in which they operate.

But in my experience, it is difficult to know whether you are getting things right. The fruits of great leadership do not appear in quarterly results. Receiving an award which has been voted for by your peers is a sign that you are certainly on the right track.

In what has been a challenging year for business, the achievements of Carolyn McCall and ARM give us cause for some much-needed optimism.

They are rightly admired for their leadership. But in my view, this is not something that can be reduced to prescriptions or lists of things to do. Instead, I prefer to think about guiding principles which can be applied by a leader to the circumstances at hand.

The first principle is about purpose. When I started my career fifty years ago, I found many people who thought that the purpose of a CEO was to enrich a company’s shareholders, above all else.

But society’s attitude towards business is cyclical. When I joined the board of BP in the 1990s, it was clear that people were starting to demand much more from business. They wanted to know that we did something more than making a profit.

And twenty years on, most leaders do think much harder about the contribution their business makes to society. But a study this year found that over two thirds of people still think CEOs spend too much time thinking about short-term financial performance. Fewer than half thought that leaders dedicated enough attention to ensuring their businesses have a positive long-term impact.

It is more important than ever that leaders clearly define their company’s purpose in society. If they do not, they risk losing customers, provoking regulators, and alienating their staff. Ultimately, they risk irrelevance.

The second principle of leadership is about authenticity. Too often, companies try to exert excessive control over the flow of information. They try to turn every failure into another form of success.

Honesty about both failure and success is essential to gaining society’s trust. At BP, we commissioned an independent panel to report on our behaviour at a highly sensitive gas development in Papua, in Indonesia. Though it was uncomfortable, it was the only way to demonstrate that we were actually doing what we had said we were going to do.

But authenticity is about more than corporate transparency. Great leaders must also be authentic themselves. This is something I sometimes failed to do. I spent almost all of my working life denying my sexuality. Today, authentic leadership also means bringing your whole self to work. For as long as someone is a leader, the personal is inseparable from the professional.

The third and most important principle of leadership is inclusion. If authenticity is about getting others to trust what you say and do, inclusion is about incorporating the views and needs of others into your decision-making. For leaders, it should be a commercial imperative.

On average, thirty per cent of a company’s earnings are at stake in its relationship with its stakeholders. And the most inclusive businesses outperform their competitors by roughly two per cent per annum over the course of a decade.

But the events of 2016 have shown that while the language of inclusion may be easy, its practice is immensely difficult.

The evidence suggests that people around the world do not feel leaders are acting in their interests. They feel they are not being heard and that their concerns are not valued. In business and government, leaders have shown themselves to be out of touch.

Getting inclusion right involves listening out for voices that challenge your assumptions. It means engaging with people inside and outside your organisation on their terms, not according to your own agenda.

A deep commitment to inclusion will be essential if leaders are to rebuild their fractured relationship with society. I know first-hand our two winners are committed to that.

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