Do you ever wonder what you would do if you woke up tomorrow and found yourself running a big organisation? I certainly don’t, but I do think armchair speculation should include this thought more often. Thinking statistically my guess is that it doesn’t matter much who runs our organisations and countries. In the.short term of my lifetime there hardly seem any changes at all that happen because we get a new chief constable, bank manager or prime minister. Longer term it is true we no longer hang nine year old kids for stealing bread and put up with judges bragging about such as socially necessary and just.
We are told, in our dismal literature, that individuals make the difference, but it is easy to write characters as heroes. The stories are no doubt older than the oldest texts we have found. Julius Caesar was the great hero of the invasion of Britain in 53 BC, though despite man-management techniques even Thatcher wouldn’t have got away with, he couldn’t get his lads on the boats in France. I love characters like McGill in Man in a Suitcase. He’s just lit a fag when two thugs interrupt his solace. He lodges the tab conveniently, is beaten up and down stairs before triumph, calming his lungs with the last drag before leaving. Modern action films repeat this play, poorly, in the dull detail of special effects. They’d cast Justin Bieber in a remake of The French Connection. The whole history of heroes is a tragic myth, or myth of tragedy if you know your classics.
I don’t suspect recruitment and selection so entirely as to justify picking me ahead of George Best for Manchester United. But it is possible to believe I might have done a better job running one of the world’s biggest banks better than some diamond geezer. After all they were all as successful as a fullback who insists on scoring five own goals a half. I’d have done a better job than John Corzine at MF Global too, I’d have managed lesser disasters and my excuse would have been the same as all the incumbents – I didn’t know what was going on. And I’d have been cheaper to pay off and would have declined the knighthood. Given the nostril culture in banking, George might have done a better job there too.
I don’t approve of the now obscene sports wages, but even worse than these payments themselves is their use in justifying bankster and senior management “earnings”. The justification for both is much the same – the claim they could go somewhere else in the world if we imposed a maximum wage. The average worker gets this the other way round. Shut up and put up or we’ll move the factory to ‘China’. There is no moral argument I know why scarce talents must command massive “earnings” over and above the average. Indeed, if the commander of our Army decided to make the most of his scarcity in a foreign country we’d nick him for treason. It was not unknown for Greeks to threaten to take their fleets to fight for the Persians. At least one did.
The problem of elites getting into and abusing positions of power is as old as history. Plato didn’t manage an answer in seven books on how a virtuous society could establish and maintain itself through generations. He didn’t notice slavery as an evil and it seems statistically unlikely you or I would have either. He did say somewhere that ordinary income should not be exceeded by more than six times, but what were earnings in a slave-based economy?
We have an economy that organises massive wealth for a few and can’t bring about decent living standards for all. The only societies that have achieved anything like the latter are or were “primitive”. And, of course, the failure to provide decent standards for all is actually much worse than the statement implies – there are still slaves, wars, sex tourism and many other abuses we should not tolerate. Indeed, we might struggle to find periods in history at peace and without these abuses. I know of none, other than that I have been lucky not to live in interesting times for the last thirty years or so.
I do have some sense of Progress in history and that our institutions have some role in this. Primitive societies have often been more murderous than ours (Stephen Pinker has put together the numbers), even counting our fixation with wars. The odd person has made a real difference in my life. I just don’t get this ‘great leader’ stuff at all – I know of none. It’s common practice to get classes to list great leaders in bringing about discussion of leadership. Before I taught the subject, my own answer in a training class was to name two of my old patrol sergeants. Their names went on the flip chart with these others:
Hitler,Stalin, Churchill, Christ, Caesar, Mohammed, Moses, Alexander, Richard the Lionheart, Thatcher …
I later taught this leadership programme around the world. The names never really change. People just come up with their own country’s greats. It was very rare to find someone like me who put up people he’d actually met. Once the list was up we were supposed to discuss the traits of the people on the list. The idea was to demonstrate they all had different traits and thus we could abandon notions of trait-theory and get on with Action-centred Leadership. Quite how one knows the traits of people one has never met I don’t know. Most who came up on the lists had the traits of getting others to charge off into the centres of volcanoes and getting historian-toadies to write them up as iconic heroes, making followership a trait of easily duped morons.
The first thing that springs to my mind when I see a list of such great leaders is deception, false history and disgust – in fact shame that this is the best we have managed and disgust we revere anything to do with such characters. I wonder if they have anything to do with Progress other than as blocks to it or through unintended consequence. I don’t see leadership as necessarily a bad thing, but I am sure we should not credit it as a good before taking evidence. I am sure it matters less who takes the role of our organisational CEO, Chief Constable, Town Clerk or Prime Minister than what reasonable control we can exercise over what they do. If leadership matters we can’t have Moses (the war criminal of Numbers 31), Hitler, Stalin, Churchill (in preserving the horrors of British Empire) and others remembered only in myth. I can name every prime minister since Walpole and can’t honestly say any of them was any good. The share price of the companies run by our irreplaceable captains of industry who die unexpectedly goes up on average. Our last local chief constable was heralded as a great leader before losing his fight with a bottle of gin and the Welsh winter. GMP is running better without his great qualities and no doubt fewer women in the vicinity of the new guy are hearing his wife doesn’t understand him. My suspicion on leadership is that a real history of it might well encourage us to seek a new system of it altogether. The first step is to try to let the evidence of what people have done in leadership positions and to get them speak for itself without presupposition of greatness.