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Tony Hayward Is the Identified Patient

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In psychology, the term "identified patient" refers to a family member -- often a child or a teenager -- who acts out and then gets scapegoated for behavior that's really just a predictable response to the stress of dealing with a dysfunctional family.

Tony Hayward, now the former CEO of BP, is noxious and repugnant for all the obvious reasons.

But Hayward is also BP's identified patient. It's true he wanted his privileged, aristocratic life back, even in the midst of the environmental catastrophe his company caused. It's true he wouldn't give up yachting on the weekends, even at the height of the crisis. It's true that he was way out of his depth dealing with the disaster for which he was ultimately responsible.

Hayward misbehaved by saying what he felt. But is there any reason to believe he is appreciably worse as an executive than any of his colleagues? He did spend nearly 30 years rising steadily through the ranks at BP, and he was the guy who reached the top.

Hayward was thrown overboard so that BP has someone to blame, and doesn't have to look at the deeper dysfunctions of an organization that chose him as CEO in the first place. It's exactly what happened at so many banks during the subprime crisis, when they needed sacrificial lambs to appease their critics.

BP's mid-level employees have done a better job than Hayward at putting a caring face on the company in its tv ads. This morning I watched Fred Lemond, head of the cleanup efforts, tell me three times over the course of ten minutes that BP will be there till the last drop of oil is gone.

Before that, it was Darryl Willis, head of claims for the oil spill, explaining in his Louisiana drawl why he and BP are committed to working around the clock to assure that every innocent victim of the crisis gets reimbursed for their losses.

"Folks were talking about paying claims in 30 to 60 days, and I knew that was going to be about 30 days too long," Willis told a reporter. "We needed to get people's claims paid as quickly as possible."

These are the sorts of things we want to believe about the leaders and the companies that operate in our communities.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that BP's ads are far more about damage control and public relations than they are about real concern and prompt action.

BP has paid out only a fraction of the claims it has received. On Tuesday, NBC ran a story quoting a series of small businesspeople describing their frustration in trying to get losses reimbursed by BP. Even where claims were paid, recipients got only a fraction of what they sought.

The bigger issue here is the myopic worldview of so many executives who run large public companies. It isn't sufficient any longer to say their only responsibility is to their shareholders, particularly when those shareholders are mostly short-term speculators, who buy in and out of their companies.

We need CEOs and senior executives willing to be reflective -- to ask themselves at least three critical questions about any significant strategic choice they face:

1. How will this decision add longer-term value not just to the company, but also to the larger community we serve?

2. What are the potential costs of this decision to any of our constituencies, and am I doing enough to mitigate them?

3. Is this a decision that reflects me operating at my best?

Great leaders are characterized by a big view -- the broadest possible perspective on the effects of their actions, and the constituencies they influence. The world's biggest companies now have the power and reach of large countries, and a corresponding need to think beyond their own borders.

It's all well and good that Tony Hayward is finally gone. The deeper problem is the system that produced him.

 

Follow Tony Schwartz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TonySchwartz