Cook’s only predecessor as an openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, perhaps the only person who can speak openly about the pressures Cook faced when considering coming out, and the benefits of doing so, is John Browne, who was CEO of oil giant BP from 1995 to 2007. He has advised five prime ministers and is chairman of the board of trustees of the Tate galleries, a fellow of the Royal Society, and a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Browne is the author of The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business. Browne writes for The Advocate on Cook’s coming out, and the benefits for business leaders in the future who foster more accepting, open work practices.
On the day of Tim Cook’s announcement, I happened to be in Silicon Valley. I was there to speak at a class on leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. As I was leaving, the professor in charge, whom I have known for many years, told me that very few guest speakers had talked about their professional lives. Instead, they had spoken about challenges in their private lives, and about how those had affected the way they approached their work. On a program at one of the world’s leading business schools, personal struggles were given the same importance as strategy, dealmaking, and negotiation. It was a fitting accompaniment to Cook’s courageous article.
When I wrote The Glass Closet, about the acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people in business, there was still no openly gay chief executive of a Fortune 500 company. In fact, you had to go into the Fortune 700 before finding one. I remained the most senior business leader to have come out, or to have been outed, as gay. It was a welcome sign of progress for Cook to take that title away from me.
Cook wrote that he had been open with colleagues for a long time but had never acknowledged his sexuality publicly. That stemmed in part from a desire for privacy, but I expect that Cook, like me, also worried that public disclosure would damage his ability to do his job. But by deciding to disclose his sexuality, Cook has united his public and private lives. He will no longer have to devote valuable energy to concealing part of his identity, energy that can now be used productively in the pursuit of more fulfilling personal and professional lives. He has shown bravery many others and I did not have.