Arts & Literature

Books: Beyond Belief

The memoir of BP's Lord John Browne radiates comfort and complacency.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

It is very hard to think of a single great autobiography by a business leader. But it is very, very easy to remember the stinkers. Most CEOs write their life stories just as the business is about to fail, or in the first years of retirement, before the market and human fickleness render them obsolete and irrelevant. Testimony to how fast business moves and how badly most business leaders write, most of these books are gone in an instant.

But with spectacular bad timing, on my bookshelf sits Beyond Business, which describes itself in the subtitle as "an inspirational memoir from a visionary leader." It is the story of Lord John Browne, the man who built the BP we now see awash in the Gulf of Mexico. From the cover stares the face of a handsome, engaging man captured with warmth and glamour by Lord Snowdon. With crisp cuffs and perfectly manicured finger nails, he radiates comfort and complacency.

It's the right image for the book. For although the British press was pretty kind to it, making a great fuss over Browne's frank acknowledgment of his homosexuality and all that it cost him, most of the book stems from the working assumption that BP was a huge success story—and that that success is largely down to its "visionary leader." If you are looking for true insight into where the tensions and stresses of the corporation were, or the seeds of its destruction, this is not the book for you.

It's full of stories of plane journeys and corporate jets, maps, acquisitions, deals and nicknames; Browne was variously known as the Pope and the Sun King. To use Katherine Graham's favorite adjective, the prose can only be described as bromidic. Only the appendix is breath-taking: a chronology which charts world events, BP history, John Browne's life and the price of oil as though they're all on a par. The chart puts President Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Mao and Gorbachev all, essentially, on the same level.

You could call the book bad timing. But quite unintentionally it does provide an insight into the mess that is now BP: absolute focus on growth, an obsession with size and with cost-cutting, sentiment but no real action over issues of safety, much vanity, no perspective, little self-criticism and no peripheral vision at all. Perhaps unwittingly it describes a man highly unaware of the effects of his actions, without much doubt and with very little sense of the human impact of decisions. The Prudhoe Bay leak is serious, but not so serious to as eliminate the curious detail that it spoiled a short break "at my apartment in Venice." The Texas City explosion interrupts his Intel board meeting. When Thunder Horse, the cutting-edge platform in the Gulf of Mexico, collapses, this is a "big disappointment" not least because the news comes as Browne is on his way to a formal dinner at the Greenwich Maritime Museum.

Not surprisingly, this inspirational memoir is, according to Amazon, currently unavailable. I guess the book tour is off.

Margaret Heffernan is the author of The Naked Truth: A Manifesto for Working Women (Wiley).

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