The Lord Brown Problem: Everybody wants to save the planet, but no one wants to help mom wash dishes!

The decision by the Board of British Petroleum to accelerate the switch from the current chairman, John Brown (Lord Brown), is indicative of a growing awareness in corporate circles that a preoccupation with political correctness can create real problems. Lord Brown became an admired businessman — in a world increasingly anti-capitalist. Why? Because, unlike his counterpart Lee Raymond of ExxonMobil, Brown saw the PC views of the European and American chattering classes as providing a wonderful opportunity to showcase his company — and himself — as somehow different. BP relabeled itself “Beyond Petroleum,” created a new sunburst logo that seemingly suggested renewable energy as the BP focus, and rushed to endorse every green slogan and idea under the sun.

This Pharisee strategy (“Thank you Lord for making me better than these other sinners!”) is dangerous because it can be taken seriously. It is all too likely that those ambitious staffers at BP “got the memo” and decided to emphasize their environmental credentials, their faith in a non-carbon world. Why would anyone in a Lord Brown-led corporation bury himself in the ashes of the “old” BP? No one, of course, wants refinery disasters or leaking pipelines, but such problems will emerge unless dedicated people continue to maintain equipment, check things out — and that takes time and effort. Saving the world by working on renewable energy, sutainable development, and other fashionable causes — were all much sexier tasks than the company’s core functions of developing and marketing new products and services to create value for shareholders. Everybody wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom wash the dishes.

Other Boards should take the BP lesson to heart. When a firm gets mentioned more in the style than business section of the newspaper, it’s time to sell!