I taught BP’s Bernard Looney about power – this is what he was like

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Bernard Looney

Like others in powerful positions, Bernard Looney’s past and current behaviour was fair game for critics – Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

At a recent talk I gave to a company in California, I asked the audience how many of them had ever been asked about their relationship history in a professional capacity. Not a hand went up.

Meanwhile, now-former BP chief executive Bernard Looney has this week left his position because apparently he did not disclose all of his past relationships with BP employees to the board.

Looney was a student in my Paths to Power class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2005. He was one of a number of BP employees who attended the Sloan, a one year master’s in management programme, from which former BP chief Lord Browne had graduated.

I recall Bernard being smart, very charismatic and charming. He was politically savvy, figuring out that exploration and production was a good place to be in an oil company, rather than for instance refining or retail. Many of his BP colleagues, both at the time and subsequently, told me he was marked for great things in the company.

Looney is still a member of the school’s advisory board and on visits to London he and I would occasionally get together.

His experience illustrates the fact that chief executives and other powerful people pay a price for their position – think Boris Johnson and the parties he held at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic.

It is a price worth keeping in mind. Powerful positions come with a great deal of scrutiny and attention. As the Looney example and many others illustrate, there is a focus not just on what the leader is currently doing or planning to do, but also their past activities and writings.

The focus is not just on job-relevant matters, such as, in Looney’s case, his commitment to making BP carbon neutral.

Numerous pieces are written about what powerful people wear, the concerts they go to and who they date. In the case of Jack Dorsey, formerly of Twitter and now chief executive of Square, there has been a focus on his beard.

This scrutiny of the powerful has grown over time. President Kennedy was reputed to be a playboy and Lyndon Johnson supposedly had dalliances. Yet the private lives of both US presidents did not tarnish them in office.

There are now more news sites that need to be fed. Cell phones with their cameras and other technology permit privacy to be pierced in new ways. The plethora of biographies and autobiographies of business leaders have turned high-level executives into public figures in a way they were not in the past.

The concentration of wealth and power, and the links between business, politics, and the media all make public interest in business leaders greater.

Being constantly in the limelight is exhausting. It also exacts a burden on the leader’s friends and family.

There is a second, related price of power nicely illustrated by the Looney example. Because leaders are so much in the limelight and so subject to public scrutiny, their freedom to live their lives as they want is constrained by needing to conform to social expectations and norms.

As my late colleague, the social scientist James G March once said to me, you can have autonomy or power, but you cannot have both.

There are two obvious implications.

First, if you aspire to a position of great power in any social sector, you need to begin living your life differently very, very early in life.

Second, although office romances are reasonably common, they are generally not a good idea.

They are common because simple proximity is an important basis of interpersonal attraction. You are not as likely to go out with someone you have never met and, particularly in today’s world of long work hours, most people know a lot of people from their workplace.

The problem is that when relationships sour, there is friction if the people still are working together. Office romances inevitably raise concerns about power differences between the individuals involved. There can also be worries about implicit, or maybe even explicit, use of power to compel unwanted behaviour.

There is no suggestion that this was the case for Looney. BP has said he did not breach the company’s code of conduct.

Dating someone from the workplace can also provoke jealousy among coworkers who can be concerned about favouritism that is bestowed because of the relationship.

In general, then, it is better to find romantic companionship in environments distinct from one’s workplace.

From all accounts, Bernard Looney was not just a good student in my class at Stanford, he was a good leader of BP, someone who worked his way up the ranks, communicated effectively, and had a vision of how to take the company into a world in which carbon-based energy was falling out of favour.

But, as in many other instances, the technical aspects of his job performance did not protect him from paying an almost inevitable price of power. Having power means one’s past and present behaviour is fair game for critics and enemies, and a part of one’s identity and record.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

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