With the world as it is, strong leadership is easier said than done
Posted on 21 September 2011 | 8:09am
To a posh Knightsbridge hotel last night, and the launch of the Harvard Business Review in London, which they chose to celebrate with a discussion between me and BT chairman Sir Michael Rake. Nice guy, and very smart.
At one point the moderator, the splendidly named Adi Ignatius, chastised us gently for ‘agreeing too much’.
In fact, we disagreed a lot about education (he was very down on many State schools, and ‘political interference’ in the system; I said the UK’s historic problem was the elite’s devotion to private schools at the expense of the rest, and also that it was impossible to divorce politics from education). We disagreed a fair bit about Europe and the Euro (he was still passionately of the view the euro was a good thing; I said attendance at too many EU summits had made me feel this was a political project posing as an economic one, that the rich countries bent the rules for themselves so shouldn’t be surprised to see the poorer ones following their lead. He was sure the euro would survive. I said volatility was such nothing could be taken for granted).
We agreed about the need for political leadership to steer the world from the current mess, but disagreed about how likely or straightforward that might be. There may be many upsides to globalisation, but I’m not sure the diminution of the power of the individual national leader is one of them.
Barack Obama (cliche alert ‘the most powerful man in the world’) is trying to lead, but the US public have delivered a near impossible political situation, and the right are using it to cause as much trouble as they can, leaving him feeling far from potent. In Germany, because of their history the system is effectively designed to weaken leadership, and Angela Merkel is somewhat between rocks and hard places in the choices she faces. France elected Nicolas Sarkozy on a platform of reform, and the same people who elected him have led the fight to stop him doing what he said he would. And in the UK we have a coalition, one part of which now seems to see its job as curbing the real instincts (which is the place leadership often lies) of the other. Added to which, even with such worrying reports as that which came from the IMF yesterday, and even with the eurozone appearing to lurch from one patched up crise to another, the UK’s economic debate still seems curiously trapped behind the prism of the election, (deficit reduction, pace of) not the huge developments for the worse since.
So yes we need political leadership, but it is not easy for the political leaders. Where Sir Michael and I were in agreement was in saying that both business and the public are aware through their own lives of how tough the situation is, and ready to listen to the leaders who level with them on how bad things are, how bad they may get, and set out a clear strategy to meet clear long-term objectives. We felt none of the current crop of world leaders were doing that effectively.
As Stefan Stern (ex FT, now with Edelman) said, there were some very clever people in the audience, and they seemed to nod along when we both suggested the UK government’s focus on deficit reduction – as much the overhang from an electoral strategy as an economic one for today’s times – was insufficient in terms of setting out where they were trying to take the country. There has to be a strategy for growth, for without it, and without it being clear and credible, confidence is not going to return.
Meanwhile Mr Ignatius disclosed the findings of a Harvard Business Review survey of top business leaders and their assessments of the near future. It made for grim reading, and underlined just how easy it is to say we need strong, clear leadership – one of the findings of the survey – and just how hard it is to provide it right now.