Lord Browne: How leaders can bounce back from catastrophe

03 June 2016 -


The former chief executive of BP on the mistakes leading up to his resignation and the lessons of that traumatic experience

Matt Scott

After more than 40 years at BP, John Browne, The Lord Browne of Madingley, resigned from his position as CEO of the oil giant in 2007 after what he describes frankly as a series of “errors and mistakes”.

Ultimately, at a super injunction hearing aimed at keeping his homosexuality out of the national press, Lord Browne lied about how he met his former boyfriend. After the injunction failed and the truth came out, he decided to resign from one of the most high-profile roles in global business.

“I was determined to stay in the closet against almost all practicality,” he said as part of the CMI Bouncing Back series of events. “I was living two lives until they crashed together. I made a lot of mistakes in that and sacrificed a lot of things and have had to play catch-up with my personal life.

“It was wrong [to hide my sexuality] because part of being a leader is to demonstrate that being different and inclusion is really important. If you are hiding away such an important thing, then it diminishes you as a leader.”

Reflecting on the consequences of his experiences, Lord Browne urged more leaders to be open about their sexuality. He cited Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook as an example of how a business leader can benefit by coming out, however late they choose to do so.

Before Cook came out, Lord Browne said, it seemed as if he was “walking on eggshells”. Now that his sexuality is no longer a secret, he is able to be much more direct and honest with his comment.

“When you restrain yourself, it’s a great, great burden.”

Browne added that, “If you look around the world for an openly gay CEO there is only one. Tim Cook is the only openly gay CEO in the Fortune 500 and statistically I would say that it is improbable [that he is the only gay CEO].”

Falling back on a support network

To get over the shock of his public outing and subsequent resignation, Lord Browne relied heavily on friends.

“There was a large set of my friends who wrote letters to the newspapers in my support and were always calling me and writing to me,” he said. “There were large numbers of people who expressed their support, both privately and publicly.”

He was also supported by total strangers. “When I was in the street walking around people would come up to me and say, ‘I want to shake your hand and say, I’m with you.’ I thought that was a remarkable sign of human compassion and consideration.”

In bouncing back from these traumatic experiences, Lord Browne drew on lessons he learned from his mother, who was an Auschwitz survivor.

“When you asked her about her life, she would say: ‘Well I’ve had several lives. I had a life until 1944 in Hungary and I enjoyed that a lot, and then I had a life from 1945 when I met your father and then I had a life with you’.

“When you asked what happened with the missing piece, she said: ‘That wasn’t a life’.

“She said: ‘We never talk about it, we only go forward.” The future is the only thing that matters, the past is not important if it gets you down. You have to look forward the whole time.”

“The answer was to build the future, and do it in tiny steps,” he concluded.

The future of leadership

Modern chief executives come under much greater scrutiny from stakeholders and the media than ever before, said Lord Browne. This means it’s more important than ever, when running a business in the public eye, to handle relationships properly.

“When I started in business almost 50 years ago, chief executives and chairmen were treated with some respect and were treated as figures of authority who could define things for the nation,” he said. “That’s not the case now – they are much more exposed to a daily torrent of comment, criticism and observation.

“That makes it much more important, therefore, to handle your relationship with all aspects of society in a constructive way.”

Hear from other leaders who have bounced back from adversity, including the man who brought down Barings Bank, Nick Leeson, and the entrepreneur and former Conservative London mayoral candidate Ivan Massow, here

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