Leading article: Beware the personalisation of corporate failure

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What do we want from the leaders of our biggest companies? The response of Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, to the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in many ways has been a textbook example of the behaviour one might hope to see from the leader of a corporate giant confronted with this sort of crisis. Yet Mr Hayward has been pilloried, both in the United States and back home, facing not just calls for his resignation but some deeply unpleasant personal abuse.

This is not to understate BP's culpability for a preventable accident that caused 11 deaths and an environmental disaster that gets worse by the day. Nor has Mr Hayward always chosen his words carefully enough. Initially describing the spill as "modest" was a gaffe. So too was talking about "wanting my life back".

But gaffes are what you get when human beings make themselves accountable to their critics. BP's chief executive must have been tempted to head for the corporate bunker as the scale of the crisis became apparent. Instead, to his credit, Mr Hayward has worked tirelessly front and centre in BP's efforts to stem the spill. And while leading those efforts he has repeatedly made himself available for public questioning about their progress. In short, he has taken responsibility for the actions of the company he leads.

This is, of course, only what the victims of BP's mistakes are entitled to expect. But having faced up to his duties, only to face unprecedented personal hostility, Mr Hayward must be wondering whether he might have been better off handing over to a faceless public relations operation. The world should not have too much sympathy for BP's executives. There are thousands of people more deserving of pity as the fall-out from the Deepwater Horizon incident continues. Still, we should consider whether the modern urge to personalise the blame game might end up being counterproductive if it deters business leaders in future crises from stepping up to the plate.

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