Lord Browne: Inclusion is the ‘single most important’ aspect of leadership
The former chief executive of BP, who resigned from the oil giant after being outed by the press, talks about the importance of inclusion and diversityMatt Scott
In 2007, John Browne, The Lord Browne of Madingley, walked out the front doors of BP having resigned as CEO after more than 40 years at the company.
His resignation came after he admitted to having lied in a witness statement about the details of how he met his boyfriend during an injunction hearing aimed at stopping the press revealing Lord Browne’s sexuality, something he had kept secret his entire life.
Reflecting on his time at BP as part of CMI’s Bouncing Back series of events, Lord Browne says it was an error of leadership to have hidden the fact he was gay.
“It was wrong [to hide my sexuality] because part of being a leader is to demonstrate that being different and inclusion are really important,” he says. “If you are hiding away such an important thing, then it diminishes you as a leader.
“The single most important thing in a corporate organisation is to have the tone set from the top that inclusion is essential. When you look at all aspects of leadership, they really start with including people in a team, including people in your business and the wider world, and getting that inclusion right.”
Lord Browne’s decision to keep his sexuality a secret was in part a result of the fact that homosexuality was illegal until 1967, with attitudes remaining hostile towards gay people in the 70s and 80s, and in part based on lessons from his mother.
“How a gay person feels about themselves is very much set when they are growing up,” Lord Browne says. “I was the child of an Auschwitz survivor, my mother, who taught me a couple of important lessons in my life. One was never tell anyone your secrets, because they will surely use them against you. The second was to remember that when the going gets tough the majority always hurts the minority.
“So those things were very much in my mind [when deciding to keep my sexuality hidden], but they are probably also in some other people's minds even today.”
Lord Browne believes that the situation has improved since his time at BP, but argues that there are two things that are needed for inclusion to be a success: the gay person feeling safe to be themselves; and the straight majority to act in a way to make people feel included.
The power of a good role model
Good role models are essential for promoting diversity, says Lord Browne.
“You can lecture people again and again, but until you can demonstrate that someone has risen to the top through merit and the fact that they are gay or lesbian hasn’t got in the way, people will say: ‘I hear you, it sounds great but show me’. That’s why it’s so important to have openly gay CEOs, but unfortunately there aren’t that many of them. Actually, in the Fortune 500 in America there’s only one, which is Tim Cook of Apple who only came out a few months ago.”
“We have to push to get more role models featured and more stories about role models,” he adds.
And Lord Browne’s advice for someone who comes up against resistance at work because of their sexuality?
“If you find a company you are working for doesn’t like gay people, don’t stay, go somewhere else,” he urges. “Go somewhere where you can be yourself. That’s great for the company, because you don’t want to employ people who are less than engaged. And great for you: you don’t want to be not yourself otherwise you’re wasting your life – you want to be who you are. That’s why you should go to places that really do understand inclusion.
“The problem with diversity and inclusion is it has become in so many parts of corporate life just one of those compliance activities. But it has to be much more than that; it is a way of life.”
Hear from other leaders who have bounced back from adversity, including the man who brought down Barings Bank, Nick Leeson, and former Conservative London mayoral candidate Ivan Massow, here