Today my phone has been ringing off the hook from reporters asking me about my opinion on the latest gay scandal. Lord John Browne has resigned as CEO of British Petroleum, forfeited millions of dollars in bonuses and faces perjury charges all because he felt it necessary to keep his sexual orientation a secret. As chief officer of one of the world's most powerful oil giants, Lord Browne was ultimately unable to sustain success in the corporate closet and has been consumed by his own decision to propagate a culture of secrecy. Sadly, the accomplishments of his life will now be overshadowed by what the British tabloids are calling the scandal of the year. Why? Because he bought into an outdated mindset that says gay business leaders are somehow less valuable as human beings than straight business leaders simply due to their sexual orientation.
Since my book on this very subject debuted last year from Wiley & Sons (The G Quotient: Why Gay Executives Are Excelling As Leaders...And What Every Manager Needs to Know), I have been in touch with several closeted senior members of Fortune 500 companies who are struggling with the decision to come out of the boardroom closet. Not quite yet in the chief officer position, they are ready to ascend their corporate throwns. Through these on-going conversations, I've learned that across the Fortune 500 there are at least five gay CEO's that are currently in the closet. Most troubling -- or perhaps astounding -- is that all of these companies provide their gay employees with inclusive employment policies, domestic partner benefits and offer gay resource groups. Therefore the barrier that lies between the corporate closet and personal freedom for these CEO's is not the workplace environment but rather themselves. At the end of the day I believe the number one reason people like Browne would rather risk going to jail than tell the truth about who they are as a human being is because they don't believe they deserve to succeed in their own skin.
With political revelations this past week ranging from the George Tenent book, Alberto Gonzales subpoenas and Paul Wolfowitz's troubled tenure as World Bank president -- not to mention the rumored resignation of Tony Blair-the major lesson to be learned is that a culture of secrecy (whether it's lying about WMD, firing attorneys based on political affiliation or giving your girlfriend a pay raise) will ultimately destroy careers and lives -- just ask Scooter. For Browne, it was the secrecy of the closet that put him in a position to be outed in print by a former lover who wanted the cash to keep coming. It was also the closet that no doubt drove him to seek companionship through an escort service rather than meeting someone is shall we say, a more professional setting.
The Bush/Blair mentality that "everyone is out to get us" has so permeated the workplace that even at a time when gays are being courted as employees by major corporations all over the world, chief officers are afraid to live their lives with authenticity and honesty. I wish I could say that I feel sorry for Browne, but I just don't. He was in the position to help change the world, but instead chose a culture of secrecy over authenticity and honesty. He could have been a hero. Who knows, maybe there's still time.