Thanks to the reading of the case study written by Elizabeth Florent-Treacy and Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt, British Petroleum: Transformational Leadership in a Transnational Organization, we know that the history of Robert Horton and its involvement in British Petroleum is actually quite old: he joined BP in 1957 where he started as an engineering trainee.
We first understand here that Horton had a deep understanding of BP’s culture and practices after more than three decades passed within this organization.The most surprising thing is that at the time Horton was still a student, he already knew that he would become CEO of BP. While climbing the different levels in thirty years, Horton became CEO of Standard Oil Co. in Cleveland, Ohio, which became BP America Inc.
when BP bought entirely Standard Oil and merged it with other North American holdings. His leadership in North America was so successful that he was elected business executive of the year by the Chamber of Commerce in 1989.This is a result of a good correlation between leadership style and American culture. He had been able to transform his old image of “Horton the Hatchet” (Horton preferred to use lay-offs to reduce company’s costs), to a person that people could trust and respect because of his adaptability and brightness. All his style was based on the ability to convince employees that his strategy of personnel cuts made sense. The company’s staff agreed watching a British CEO that was Americanizing himself.
Their opinion was: “the boss is able to adapt himself to us, why couldn’t we do so? “. This was pushed by the fact that Horton presented himself to all BP divisions across the United States. The staff saw its boss involved and thus encountered morale again. When Horton became BP’s CEO of the worldwide organization in 1989, his first announcement was: “BP is (… ) more of an American company than a British company” (Florent-Treacy & de Vitry d’Avaucourt, 1997).
This sentence was probably the biggest mistake of his leadership with BP.Actually, he wanted to adopt the exact same leadership strategy as the one he used in the United States. The problem was that he faced a completely different culture in United Kingdom. He was confused between the fact of showing that he was the example and the fact of actually being the leader’s example for the company. At the beginning, people were not sure of what BP’s five-year strategy and mission were but Horton benefited from its reputation to rapidly become responsible and implement changes in an organization in bad situation.Fortunately, he did so with the implementation of its new Project 1990 created “to understand the old as well as the present culture at BP, to transform the prevailing ‘civil service’ mentality and to create a new culture based on OPEN: ‘Open thinking, Personal impact, Empowering, and Networking”.
Even if key executives such as David Simon supported his Project 1990 and if people were first confident with it, three factors of wrong leadership style were at the origin of Horton’s failure.