In psychology, the term "identified patient" refers to a family member — often a child or a teenager — who gets scapegoated for behavior that is actually just a predictable response to dealing with an unhealthy family.
Tony Hayward is BP's identified patient.
He did want his privileged, aristocratic life back and he said so. He didn't want to be bothered any longer with a catastrophe he'd helped to cause. He was hungry to return to the primary business of earning piles of money without outside interference. And he did want to go yachting on the weekends, as he had so happily in the past.
Hayward misbehaved by saying all of these politically incorrect things out loud. I don't know much about the oil industry, but I suspect Hayward is not significantly worse as an executive than his counterparts.
He has been thrown out so that BP has someone to blame, and doesn't have to look at the deeper dysfunctions of the organization that chose him as CEO in the first place.
The overwhelming evidence is that even BP's priority is less to take full responsibility for the catastrophe it caused and more to restore the flow of oil and profits, and build back investor confidence.
In the larger sense, BP itself is the identified patient in this crisis. Its competitors are no less single-mindedly focused on profit, and predictably so in a system that offers precious few rewards to executives or companies with other priorities.
BP has made at least one smart move in this crisis and I found it difficult to resist the first six times I saw it. I'm talking about the advertisement that's run hundreds of times in which a man identifying himself as a longtime BP employee explains in a Louisiana drawl why he and BP are committed to working around the clock to assure that all innocent victims of the crisis get reimbursed for their losses.
What drew me in was an employee, who seemed real and credible, making a personal case that BP is interested in a world beyond BP, has a stake in the communities in which it operates, and actually stands for something.
For all I know, this guy may be an actor, but even that would be beside the point. What he's saying is what we want to believe about the leaders and companies that operate in our communities.
Sadly, the evidence suggests the ad is far more about damage control and public relations than it is about any real concern. BP has paid out only a fraction of the claims it has received, and NBC News ran a story just last night quoting a series of small businesspeople describing their frustration in trying to get claims paid by BP.
The bigger issue is the worldview of the executives who run our large public companies. It simply isn't sufficient any longer for them to say their only responsibility is to their shareholders, particularly when those shareholders are mostly short-term speculators, who buy in and out of the company.
We need CEOs and senior executives willing to ask at least three critical questions about any significant strategic choice they face:
- How is the decision I'm making here adding longer-term value to the company, and to the larger community we serve?
- What are the potential costs of this decision, to any of our constituencies, and am I doing enough to mitigate them?
- Is this a decision that reflects me operating at my best?
Great leaders are characterized by a wide 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 responsibility to think beyond their own borders.
Tony Hayward isn't the problem. The system that produced him is.