Fossil Fuel Leaders – “It’s time to put a Buddha in your tank”

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We need progressive leaders in the fossil fuel industries who can adopt an earth-intelligent vision, instead of simply defending their sectors to protect shareholders, writes Chris Nichols.

I’ve been spending time with the CEO of an oil company. He wasn’t happy. “When I was a kid”, he said “I used to have a tiger in my tank…I don’t have a tiger in my tank anymore”

Oil isn’t the easiest business to be in right now. What with ocean spills, threats to the arctic, disputes over “fracking” and an oil price that seems to have no bottom. But he wasn’t talking about these challenges: he was talking about his kids and how they view his business. When he, and I, were youngsters in the 1960s, Esso ran a massively successful advertising campaign – “Put a tiger in your tank”. It still ranks as one of the most powerful moves ever to differentiate a commodity product. Then, and for a long time afterwards, oil was the frontier of the future, the power to drive a world from the scarcity of the post-war years into a booming future of speed and light.

How things change. We now see ex-oil CEOs John Browne and Mark Moody-Stuart sitting on the Critical Resource panel that produced a hard hitting report calling for fossil fuel firms to start acting to survive in a “radically different future”.

This all made me think about what it takes to lead a business at the frontier of a seismic shift of purpose and action.

I suspect part of the answer is what we see in “Steve Jobs – The Movie”. I’ve just watched it. I don’t know how accurate to Jobs’ actual character the representation was, but in the movie he had an incredible driven passion – and a complete intolerance for people who didn’t see his vision of the future.

In his case, he was often right – much of the success of Apple – much of the technological world we inhabit – arises from his total refusal to compromise on his view of what was essential. I think we do need utterly unreasonable visionaries to catalyse the shifts we need.

But that, alone, won’t be enough to make my oil company CEO into the hero his children want him to be. He will need passion for a new future and a different view of what he is there to protect. It can’t just be reputation and revenues.

We need the passion for the industry we are in and we need to recognise the need for change. Often being inside a strong corporate culture means that it becomes impossible to be critical about it in a way that is vital for strategic innovation and deep change.

We’ve seen this in the past (and often in the present) with the tobacco industry – dying in a ditch not to admit that the produce has a problem.

Right now it’s the same with sugar. In National Sugar Week we saw a campaign launch of ‘Making Sense of Sugar’ – an old- school attempt to “de-bunk sugar myths” by presenting selective scientific truths. It isn’t helpful to the strategic future for leaders in any of these industries to be seen as intransigent advocates, defending their position like Canute against the tide. Something much more sophisticated will be more effective and more authoritative too.

It’s time for my friend the CEO to replace the tiger in his tank with something more helpful…like a Buddha. I say this because most of our corporate processes quickly fall into false polarity: for us or against us. It’s time for a much more radical form of engagement that acknowledges our place in an interwoven system.

To some extent this is what John Browne is calling for in his book Connect where he advocates “radical engagement” – taking active and professional steps to heal the historic rift between “business” and “society”. It’s a compelling and pragmatic manifesto.

But I want to go further.

We are an energy-hungry society and we show no signs of changing this. We will need oil for some time yet – but we also need oil to play a much more precious and smaller role than it does today.

We need leaders of large oil companies to pursue earth-intelligent strategies, not merely oil-defending ones. We need great people to run our oil companies with passion (to do it well) and wisely (to steward the transformation and the new energy world).

It’s about recognising that all things will pass, including oil, and we have our part to play in engaging with the transition.

It’s about realising that defending an industry simply to protect shareholders is too small a perspective to be termed leadership.

We are one earth: running any company or industry as if we are separate from the earth is a form of illiteracy. Time to put a Buddha in your tank. I think our children will approve.

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Photo Credit: Pete Markham from Flickr.

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