Expert's Opinion

Don't Call the Troops Stupid

June 11, 2013

Al Bolea on executive management.

Many years ago I was put in an executive development program at BP and assigned a job as the director of internal communications.  Our Chairman and CEO at the time was Sir Robert Horton, a megalomaniac and a rather abrasive guy. 

While being interviewed by a Wall Street Journal reporter about dissention within BP’s executive ranks over one of his initiatives, Sir Robert  commented, “…because I am blessed with a good brain, I tend to get the right answer rather quicker and more often than most people.” 

When the paper hit the stands the next day the outrage within BP spread like a wild fire.  My boss said, “He just called us all stupid.” 

I was feeling the heat to do something in my role as the internal communications director, and I asked my wife, “What am I supposed to do with this?” 

She responded, “Nothing Al. Bosses who call the troops stupid don’t last long.” 

Sure enough within weeks he was ousted from the company.  Famously, the gaffe became known as doing a Sir Bob.

A couple weeks ago, and over 20 years later, I was stunned to read an article in The Wall Street Journal about a more recent Sir Bob, this time by Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM. In a video message she reprimanded all 434,000 IBM employees for being too slow.  

She admonished, “If a client has a request, a requirement, a question, an expectation, respond in 24 hours.”  

IBM reported poor earnings for the first quarter of 2013 and Rometty blamed it on the sales staff, saying it failed to close a number of software and hardware deals.  Now it is fine to hold people accountable for delivering results, but a public lashing in front of the entire company and 4 million readers of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times is unacceptable for a leader.  Ginni is 16 months into the CEO job and she clearly has a few things to learn about being a leader.

Both of these executives failed to recognize an important aspect of their jobs – that their relationship with the organization is driven by the things they say and the nature of their conversations.  No one, not even the CEO, exists in an organization outside of the relationships they create with others.  And, a key enabler of a relationship is the control we maintain over our emotional wake.  Blaming is without a doubt the worst type of behavior.  Inferring stupidity is right up there too.  Leaders, especially CEOs, recognize that there is no such thing as a trivial comment.  If the organization’s aftertaste is blurred with emotional injury the spin will amplify it to a deafening level.

The key leadership lesson is:  End messages to the organization with a thought – what do I want them to remember about me?

About the Author

Al Bolea is the founder of Applied Leadership Seminars, a company offering clients10 leadership seminars, ranging from one to five days in length, and the annual Alaskan Executive Leadership Retreat in Ketchikan, Alaska. He is the former CEO/GM of Dubai Petroleum and a retired BP executive. He is currently the Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Leadership at the University of Alaska and a leadership lecturer at the University of Houston.

More info: or email appliedleader@gmail. com