As thousands of barrels of oil continue to spill daily into the Gulf of Mexico, BP PLC's chief executive officer Tony Hayward is facing his own gusher of grief, falling under increasing fire over his handling of the crisis - from his lack of visibility to statements he has made that have belittled the situation.
This week, U.S. President Barack Obama said Mr. Hayward "wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements." Last week, the New York Daily News called Mr. Hayward "the most hated -and most clueless - man in America" for a variety of failures, from minimizing the seriousness of the situation to defying growing calls to resign.
Mr. Hayward's treatment of the tragedy teaches some harsh and valuable lessons in crisis leadership, the experts say.
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Even as underwater cameras were showing thick plumes of oil streaming uncontrollably from the broken undersea pipe, Mr. Hayward was playing down the spill. He was quoted as saying that "the oil is on the surface. There aren't any plumes" and that he expected that the environmental impact would be "very modest."
It might have been an effort to be reassuring, but Mr. Hayward should have been more upfront about the true potential of disaster, said leadership development consultant Michael Stern, president of Michael Stern Associates Inc. in Toronto.
"While hoping for the best, a leader should come clean from the beginning," Mr. Stern said.
"Like Tiger Woods discovered in his scandal last year, stonewalling ultimately turns public opinion against you. It's best to admit the situation is serious, but that you are doing everything possible to limit the damage," Mr. Stern added. "Trying to minimize a growing problem, hoping it will go away, just makes you sound naive and out of touch with reality."
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Keep communication channels flowing
In much of the coverage of the growing spill, "there was a whole feeling that the media was running the show and not the leaders," Mr. Stern said.
A leader in a crisis needs to keep the flow of information pouring out steadily, and be the person responsible for it, he said. "I think it would have defused the criticism a lot if Mr. Hayward was the point man in front of the camera. regularly explaining what the experts knew about the current situation and options that are being pursued, and being honest enough to admit that there are a lot of imponderables, because something like this has never happened before."
Stay in full view
While Mr. Hayward did pledge to stay in the United States until the crisis was over and set himself up in a command centre in a hotel in Louisiana, he has rarely been seen on the beaches to view the damage or talk to people who were affected, noted Julian Barling, a professor of rganizational behaviour at the Queen's University School of Business. Even Mr. Obama, who has made three visits to the affected area of the Gulf in recent weeks, has been criticized in the press for not staying long enough.
A leader in a crisis needs to be physically on the scene and not ensconced in an office. Prof. Barling said. "During crises, people look to leaders for guidance and reassurance; they want to know someone is in charge and, no matter how bad it looks, that things are in control."
As an example of doing it right, Prof. Barling points to former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In the days after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, "he was the quintessence of a leader, remaining on the scene and continually giving updates on the situation. If you show up regularly, people will believe you care about them. If you fail to show up, the inference will be that you don't care and it will be nearly impossible to recapture your credibility and your ability to influence others," Prof. Barling said.
Off the cuff doesn't cut it
Throughout the crisis. Mr. Hayward has been tripped up by seemingly callous statements he has had to later apologize for. Even while he made an apology about the disruption the spill has caused to residents of the coast, he added a comment that angered those whose livelihoods were in jeopardy: "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I'd like my life back."
"There is no substitute for carefully preparing communication in a crisis," said Guy Beaudin, senior partner at leadership development consultancy RHR International in Toronto. "A leader needs to focus on a set of key messages that need to be delivered, and prepare statements in advance for the types of questions that are likely to be asked."
These would include saying that you realize the severity of the situation, that everything possible is being done to handle it and that you have sympathy for all those who have been affected, he said.
"It's important that a leader's comments be respectful and not sound as though they are being read from cue cards but, at the same time, a crisis is not the time for off-the-cuff remarks about your personal life. As an executive, you must always represent the organization and not your own petty concerns," he said.
Look to the future, not the past
While leaders should certainly acknowledge what has happened, they should focus more on what they will do going forward, said Dave Jackson, president of leadership consultancy Jackson Leadership Systems in Mt. Albert, Ont.
"It doesn't do you any good to dwell on the past. As hard as it may be, a leader has to project optimism and a vision for a brighter future," he said.
Both Mr. Hayward and Mr. Obama could stand to project more optimism, he said. "Winston Churchill did when the bombs were falling. He made great speeches about the future…There is no question that what people want to hear from their leaders is that, no matter how bleak the situation looks now, it will be all right in the long run," Mr. Jackson said.
Don't pass the buck
To his credit, Mr. Hayward has publicly taken responsibility for the cleanup, stating "We will halt this spill and put right the damage that has been done," noted Liane Davey, principal for Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions in Toronto who specializes in coaching on leading through crisis. Mr. Hayward's use of "we" indicates he believes it is a team effort to get the well plugged, she said.
Where he does come on shaky ground, she said, is in repeatedly stating that his priority is sorting out who is responsible for the rig's failure. "The public isn't interested in who might be legally or contractually responsible. Regardless of what kind of culpability is assigned behind the scenes, I don't think there is room for him to publicly apportion the blame in the midst of the crisis."
The person in charge has to have the strength in a crisis to say 'Not only am I in charge, but I am ultimately responsible for what happens,' " Ms. Davey said.
From that standpoint, Mr. Obama was probably overstepping his bounds by suggesting he would have fired Mr. Hayward, she added. "Letting a blame game start mid-crisis will deflect from the task at hand, which is finding a way to recover."
It's wise to stand firm
Despite mounting public criticism and Mr. Obama's scathing rebuke this week. Mr. Hayward has remained defiant that he will remain in charge, saying "it would be ridiculous to resign at this point."
On this point, he is playing it right, Ms. Davey said. Turning tail and running in mid-crisis is not a wise tactic because it can just make a situation seem worse than it is and, in the process, permanently taint your record, she said.
Interestingly, corporate boards are likely to remain staunchly supportive of a leader in a crisis, unless the problem was personally created by the leader, she said. "It's just too important that the executive team be aligned in a crisis. The moment you create a horse race for a successor, then you lose the focus on the matter at hand." If the situation improves, the leader can still get the credit for staying the course and finding a solution.
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