It is too early for history to judge, but judgements are still being made. Despite the noise and clamour of the moment with commentators and experts at every twist and turn, I wonder whether in ten years time we will look back at what has happened (is happening) in the Gulf of Mexico and see it as a moment of self-realisation for the politicians and corporations that run our world; a time when lessons were learnt and opportunities taken – or will it still be, as it is now, a largely self-justifying, self-serving slick of mediocrity on all sides?
While BP has become a lightning rod for anger and frustration, we are all aware that BP is not actually the devil incarnate. No doubt oil executives from other companies across the world issued emergency instructions to everyone in their businesses in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to demand vigilance and care, the subtext for which was “…there, but for the grace of god, go we; do not let it happen to us”!
The fact that BP is not the devil incarnate provides perhaps a slightly uncomfortable opportunity for all of us to examine this dreadful situation to see what lessons there might be for us as well. I therefore want to focus on what we can take from the BP disaster; so not the macro-economic, the global environmental or the geo-political – but the human lessons on a scale that individuals can assess and consider.
Nor do I want to focus on a lawyer’s perspective. Clearly the lawyers are going to have a field day. Claims will be made, battles fought, appeals heard and perhaps prison might follow for some. Again I am less interested in this part of the affair. It is a cliché that the lawyers will do well, but as long as businesses and politicians screw-up we must also accept that lawyers will be needed to sweep up the mess they leave behind. As a lawyer myself I cringe a little at the self-importance of the profession, but I am mostly grateful that we still have men and women of great integrity who will fight for justice. The fact that lawyers will do well from all of this is not a lesson we learn; it is a self evident truth. There are five lessons I want to highlight.
Lesson number one:
Let us not forget that this began with eleven poor souls losing their lives in the most violent and terrifying of ways. Eleven families devastated for ever, eleven tragedies to mourn. When we miss this point, we are all diminished. Imagine driving past a road accident and thinking about the inconvenience to our journey, not about the plight of those involved. That would be a sad day for us too.
Lesson number two:
Just because businesses operate on a global scale doesn’t mean they are excused from looking after small things. As a young lawyer working in a UK bank I once remarked to an executive colleague “The loan terms and conditions I drafted secured several billions of pounds of assets”. In that moment I puffed myself up in a very inelegant way; but luckily for me my executive colleague was on hand to remind me that every day in all our branches seventeen year old clerks would be speaking to our borrowers to let them know that their loan was approved. “They are the important ones, because they are the face of our business and they will make or break our reputation in the dealings they have with our customers.”
Lesson number three:
BP at one level at least appears to be accepting that it is responsible for the cost of cleaning up the mess. It is settling claims and has promised to settle claims in future – it did not have to be dragged through the courts, has not tried to wriggle too much and has the means to pay as well. So why is it perceived to have handled things so badly? Partly I believe because it showed precious little humility.
In a restaurant a while ago a very large and even louder gentleman on the table next to me expansively gestured to his nervous looking “girlfriend”, in doing so he knocked my arm and caused me to drop the glass of wine I was holding into my lap. I looked up, held up my hands in a gesture that said “For goodness sake look what you are doing”, but I Didn’t actually say a word; before I could saying anything, he took out his wallet, literally threw some money at me and said without a hint of apology, “That will take care of it.” He then turned round to continue his dinner.
Lesson number four:
In his resignation statement the Chief Executive for BP says he has been vilified. He is being comforted in this state of vilification by a £1,000,000 pay-off and a pension purportedly worth £600,000 a year. On his watch, his business has caused damage beyond imagining and (reference lesson number one) eleven men are dead. The Chief Executive of BP did not cause these things, but he was paid riches to show stewardship, leadership and to take responsibility.
Taking responsibility is one of life’s big lessons. Every day ordinary people do it; they see something and they act on it; small gestures often, but gestures that signify that they are self-aware: standing with a child who has temporarily lost a parent; picking up some broken glass on the pavement; opening a door for someone carrying bags; giving up a seat on a bus. The Chief Executive of BP seems to me to be confusing fault and responsibility. It is not his fault, but it is his responsibility.
Lesson number five:
Was it partly our responsibility too? The Gulf of Mexico is a long way away from my home town and from the petrol station I use every week. Does that distance mean I am shielded from seeing my role in all this as well? I think on balance it does, but I also think we are poorly served by big business and by politicians. If we all lobby for greener fuels (so the argument goes), we will get them; but I am reminded of the quotation attributed to Henry Ford: “…Before the invention of the automobile, if you had asked people what they wanted from transportation they would have said faster horses.”
We need to value more our scientists, philosophers and entrepreneurs and to value a little less the accountants, bankers and brokers. We need to value the game-changers, not just those who can sweat assets to deliver shareholder returns.
Is BP hapless, hopeless or hard done to? Let history judge that…however, we can take our lessons now and now is always a very good time to learn.