Have you heard?

There is a CEO in the oil and gas industry that is listening to his people and society.

He was interviewed last week on the Outrage + Optimism podcast by the dynamic team of Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac and Paul Dickinson. Tom went on to say on social media that it was one of his ‘favourites he has done so far’.

Has a CEO from the industry ever turned up in this way, on a climate change podcast? No. So it was unique in this respect. And it was a well-navigated, respectful and important interview. With the constraints of time and corporate communication, we could only get a glimmer. But it was a glimmer of hope… 

Bernard Looney, CEO of BP is an impressive and influential leader. One who has courageously stepped forward in announcing plans to be ‘net-zero’ by 2050 and to become an integrated energy company. 

The leadership he is now establishing is what he was showing himself to be – curious, open, empathetic and pragmatic, and focused on delivering results. It seems that my Dad said the same thing as his Mum – ‘We have 2 ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion’. So he seems willing to listen and be challenged. 

The interview left me with so many questions, for him and other industry leaders. In case I don’t get the chance to have him on my own Earth Converse Podcast, I will ask my questions here. I have spent over 25 years working with leaders across sectors, helping to raise consciousness so they step up in their responsibilities to both people and planet, so I’ll offer them here, in the hope of ‘being helpful, rather than righteous’.  

The questions are interrelated, as is the nature of things. And they go back to Bernard’s point about ‘holding up a mirror’. Because that is where change happens.

First up:

What has to die in BP (and others in the industry) in order to truly transform? 

Transformation by its nature involves dying, decline, endings and letting go. Events that many CEOs and shareholders aren’t big fans of. Events which they connect with failure, rather than as a natural and necessary part of our evolution. Indeed, Elle Harrison’s stirring book ‘Wild Courage, A Journey of Transformation for You and Your Business’, starts off with ‘Dying’. She reflects, as many have, that we need to die in order to make space for change. “Our tendency to avoid Dying holds true at many levels, from the individual to the global. As leaders, we try to enter new territories with the tools that generated success for us in our new world…Other times, we superficially engage with Dying but refuse to make the deeper, internal changes.”

So, I am curious to ask: to what extent will BP (and indeed the rest of the fossil fuel industry) explicitly engage in this inquiry? And I am particularly curious about those behaviour drivers, such as identity, habits, perspectives, beliefs and traditions, which it will need to let go of in order to become a truly integrated energy company and make a more positive and less harmful contribution to society? Could it be the ‘extractive’ mindset of the industry? A mentality of ‘growth at all costs’? Viewing nature as a resource rather than a partner? I have my views on what some of the things would be. But it is our own mirrors we each need to look into.

Because it is not just about skills is it?

Any good strategy identifies the capabilities of its people and how they may be applied in different ways. Of course BP people are highly skilled and competent. However there will be existing mindsets, beliefs and ways of being and doing which need to be left behind, as well as new ones which need to be embraced.

In fact, to what extent do you know your shadow, individually and collectively?  

To be integrated is to be whole. To embrace our dark and light, our yin and yang, and to discover those unclaimed parts of ourselves which subconsciously drive our behaviour is as necessary for an individual as it is for an organisation. 

So Bernard, here are some more of my questions for you: 

How have you helped to create that societal dependence on oil and gas?

As you emphasised in this interview, society needs what you have but doesn’t necessarily want it. The question you and the industry have to take responsibility for is: ‘What part have we played in creating that dependency’? 

What will you do to create the environment where people can be their whole integrated selves? 

It was lovely to hear you speak of your people so well. Yes, of course you have great people working for you. It always was and always will be true. To see people as people, not just as resources, but honouring their humanity too, is what every leader and person needs to do. I am reminded of poet David Whyte saying, “work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow part we bring to the door”. When we actually treat people as humans, and invite them to bring their whole selves, organisations can flourish. 

What relationship do you see between mental health and eco-anxiety? 

What do you already know, or sense, about how being a major contributor to planetary harm is impacting on the mental health of your own people, and the wider population?

What are your areas of illusion, collusion and delusion? 

I can’t take credit for this question. It is one I’m borrowing from organisational consultant Peter Hawkins, and another way to look at our shadow, the parts of ourselves that we may not ‘like’. As he says, we must check our areas of illusion, collusion and delusion, regularly. 

I remember one of my first CEOs also saying, “don’t come with problems, come with solutions”. And I get it. I feel the same. Often problems are so complex that we can’t actually outthink them, but have to dig down into different parts of ourselves to access wisdom. Often by ‘sitting with’ those uncomfortable feelings to see what emerges. Otherwise rushing to solutions, or simply applying ‘positive thinking’ can, as mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat Zinn reminds us, be “confining, fragmented, inaccurate, illusionary, self-serving and wrong”. It can be just more analysing, more assessing, more of wanting to escape from what is emerging, particularly if what is emerging is unpleasant and uncomfortable.

To what extent is your view on others’ outrage and positions entrenched itself?

One way our shadow turns up is if we feel a strong like or dislike towards something or someone, or what they said. As Carl Jung wrote, “everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”. So when we find ourselves saying “it feels like an affront to me because it’s not who I am, and all of the people that I know working in BP, that’s not who they are”, that’s a clue to look deeper into that mirror. 

What are you numb to? What are you unwilling to feel?

We humans are often ‘too much in our heads’, and we learn early to block out certain emotions as strategies to keep us safe. As adults, when those strategies cut us off from feeling, we cut off our connection with ourselves, each other and the earth. I agree with you that people are entitled to feel what they feel. Part of our growing consciousness is to tune into our feelings and learn from them, and to respond in effective ways. Arguably, to feel the full range of human emotions is part of our potential and every emotion has value, but we need to learn to use them intelligently. Learning to experiment with our emotional range, and embody what so many feel about the industry and the damage it has created, could be informative.

What about the planet?

You talked passionately about your people. But you didn’t actually talk about the planet and your relationship to it. I imagine most people want cleaner (and cheaper) energy, but that they also want the fossil fuel industry to help ‘clean up the mess’. You do have initiatives in your strategy such as decarbonisation but, to expand on Christiana’s question, what will that look like in 2040?  

You have been talking to your people. What conversations are you having with the earth? 

Ok, that might sound strange, but what are you really doing to listen to the non-human world? If you are curious, tune into the Earth Converse Podcast where we explore our conversations and relationship with the earth. All in the hope of inspiring a deeper connection, with ourselves, each other and the earth that is our home.  


Thanks for listening.


Sources etc:

  • Authored by Penelope Mavor, founder of Earth Converse Limited
  • Photo by Omid Arman on Unsplash
  • Outrage + Optimism, Friday 18 September 2020 #35 BP’s Road to Rebuilding Trust with CEO Bernard Looney https://globaloptimism.com/podcast/bps-road-to-rebuilding-trust-with-ceo-bernard-looney/
  • Tom Rivett-Carnac, Instagram 22 Sept 2020
  • Harrison, E. (2011) Wild Courage: A Journey of Transformation for You and Your Business, Watkins Publishing, UK, pp 11
  • Whyte David, The Heart Aroused, Audio Book
  • Kabat-Zinn, J (1994) Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life, Hyperion, New York, pp 93-95


Post Share
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments