Proactivity: The Key to Responsible Leadership

Corporate Social Responsibility. We hear about it every day, whether in school, in the media, in life, or some other outlet. I believe CSR is relevant to discuss in the context of sustainability because it guides a corporations entire approach to the triple bottom line: the society, the economy, and the environment. It is intended that a corporations actions are in-line with the CSR strategy. There is considerable debate regarding the motivations for different CSR strategies, arguing about whether they’re done as spinning, green harvesting, or green washing or something else altogether. And there is yet another argument surrounding whether or not the reason even matters so long as the actions are being taken. However, I would personally argue that regardless of the motivations, true CSR that demonstrates leadership and responsibility must be proactive.

The case of the BP oil spill presents an ideal platform upon which to build my argument that proactivity is fundamental to true responsible leadership.

In 2010, BP was responsible for one of the worst man-made environmental disasters of the century: an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After the incident, internal documents revealed that BP was aware of serious safety issues on the Deepwater Horizon rig earlier in the year. Evidently, BP chose not to heed the warnings of their engineers and specialists, instead proceeding with operations. We are all aware of the severe resulting negative impacts on the environment, the economy, and the society.

BP’s crisis management of the event was undeniably problematic. Among these issues, BP’s CEO Tony Howard complained publicly that he “wanted his life back.” This was understandably poorly received by society, who was now dealing a negative externality that was arguably the result of negligence and greed.

If we instead compare this to Tylenol’s 1982 cyanide poisoning crisis, I am better able to illustrate the comparative value of proactivity. While many predicted Tylenol would never regain market share; through a crisis management approach involving proactivity, transparency, and communication – all things we learned in the simulation to be highly relevant in CSR – the brand did indeed regain market share. Tylenol immediately removed their product from shelves, accepting public responsibility for the tampering, and communicating with the public and press proactively.

Conversely, in the case of BP not only did they fail to truly accept responsibility – attempting to blame the workers, the engineers, and the equipment manufacturers – but they also neglected to proactively prevent the crisis in the first place. I would argue that even if BP had leveraged a similarly strong crisis management strategy, they still could not be classified as responsible leaders.

A true demonstration of BP as responsible leaders would have involved proactively halting function of the Deepwater Horizon rig until safety had been improved. What are you opinions of proactive responsible leadership? Is it enough to proactively respond to a crisis to be considered responsible leaders?

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