I’m not well qualified to write about politics, but I do have a professional interest in chief executives, and one thing is clear to me: you wouldn’t want a CEO running your country. Not a heroic corporate leader of the sort that business schools have been churning out for the last two decades. Nor, I think, a chief executive of the careful, bean-counting variety, very good at balancing the books; someone who talks shareholder value and tough choices as factories close and food banks fill up.
When someone says Ed Miliband isn’t leadership material, they really mean he isn’t CEO material. It’s true, he isn’t. He lost his footing as he walked off the stage at BBC Question Time. He eats a bacon sandwich in a funny way, and his face moves around when he’s thinking. In short, he seems a pretty ordinary chap.
You can’t imagine Richard Fuld, formerly of Lehman Brothers, tripping on some stairs. But then, Fuld went out of his way never to be seen on stairs at all. He lived a life of chauffeured limousines, personal jets and private elevators; you’d expect Fuld to catch a magic carpet rather than use his own legs.
When most people make mistakes, they slip, stumble, or struggle with a sandwich; a missed deadline or bureaucratic error, something that can be put right easily enough. Chief executives, however, make mistakes of Olympian proportions. The chief executive slips up, and everyone pays, sometimes for decades. When Fuld’s testosterone-charged, corrupt Lehman Brothers imploded it very nearly took the global financial system with it.
Why should this be? How can a chief executive’s capacity for disaster be so exponentially greater than our own? Why doesn’t someone, somewhere in these globe-circling corporations waggle a finger and say, look, Sir Fred, if you do this much more you’ll be the most hated man in Britain for a decade?
Part of the problem, I think, lies in the ‘charismatic’ management style often seen in big corporations. By this account, chief executives really are something special. They’re godlike individuals, possessed of unique moral and intellectual skills, and personally responsible for every success of their corporation (though, remarkably, almost none of its failures). Management gurus peddle this kind of nonsense all the time; I’m not joking about the God stuff either – if you’re interested and have an hour and some to spare, here’s guru Ken Blanchard explaining how to ‘lead like Jesus’.
Or take the late Steve Jobs. No need to say more.
No one is allowed to question, or to puncture the chief executive’s bubble. The smallest misdemeanour can lead to tantrums and dismissals: remember no-longer-Sir Fred Goodwin and his pink wafer biscuit apoplexy? Jobs, by all accounts, couldn’t get in a lift without firing someone, and used to lob prototype iPods into his fish tank to show his cowering engineers they could be made still smaller (bubbles = space = room for improvement).
The very worst chief executives remind me of Roman politicians, who squirmed their way up the greasy pole of provincial administration until they reached the top and could squeeze whole countries for all they were worth. Here’s Jimmy Cayne, who worked his way up from traveling salesman to chief executive of giant investment bank Bear Stearns, and who was playing bridge in another state when his bank went under. There’s Verres, a corrupt governor so uninterested in the world outside his own pleasure palace that he knew it was spring only when the first bouquets of flowers arrived. Whether reported by the Wall Street Journal or Cicero, there’s not much difference.
But here’s the rub. We hold our national leaders to account on the very terms we should level at chief executives. While chief executives stuff themselves with gold until they burst, we harangue would be prime-ministers about balancing the books, or what they can offer GB plc. As the sociologist William Davies has pointed out, we have achieved an ‘ontological parity’ between chief executive and PM, puffing up business leaders as charismatic visionaries, and grinding down politicians through relentless business-style audit.
Pity Natalie Bennett, not knowing how she would fund the building of her half million starter homes. Who cares, she should have said. When the banks were in trouble, the Chancellor found a trillion pounds down the back of the sofa – I’m sure a few little houses won’t even be noticed. Doesn’t the fact that five hundred thousand families suddenly have somewhere to live, that they are no longer socially and economically excluded, seem in anyway important to you, Mr Ferrari?
Chief executives, ever ready to weigh into political debate, might be loath to admit it, but states and corporations are not the same thing. Corporations, in the end, exist to make and sell us things: lawnmowers, burgers, mobile phones and face cream. They pay taxes in Luxemburg or the Bahamas and hire the cheapest labour they can find on the worst possible contracts. And, as Lehman Brothers showed us, their capacity for inflicting misery is immense.
Nations, on the other hand, should serve and support their people. Their job is to guarantee law, arbitrate fairness, and permit free and flourishing lives for their citizens. Their leaders needn’t be charismatic, but should be decent, upstanding, and empathetic. A bit of humanity, vulnerability – even the occasional trip – goes a long way in showing they have the capacity to know what matters. Sure, Miliband isn’t CEO material. That suits me just fine.