Monday, 25 July 2011

Fearing to Fall, or Hoping to Rise?

After three months of interviewing an astonishing cast of leaders (mainly British and mainly male, I'm getting something badly wrong here), all on the theme of 'Hoping to Rise vs Fear to Fall', the results are finally ready at

I'll let the list of interviewees speak for itself.

Lord Browne, Former Group Chief Executive, BP plc
Sir Roger Carr, Chairman, Centrica plc and President of the CBI
Sebastian Coe, Chairman, LOCOG
Sir David Frost, broadcaster and author
Will Hutton, Executive Vice Chair, The Work Foundation and former Editor-in-Chief, The Observer
Julian James, CEO, Lockton Companies International
Lord (Digby) Jones, UK Business Ambassador and former Minister of State for UK T&I
Lady Judge, Chairman, Pension Protection Fund and Chairman Emeritus, UK Atomic Energy Authority
Martha Lane Fox, UK Digital Champion
Lord Mandelson, Chairman, Global Counsel
Arthur Milholland, President and CEO, Canadian Overseas Petroleum Limited
Sean Oldfield, CEO, Castle Trust
Sir Stuart Rose, former Executive Chairman, Marks and Spencer plc
Sir John Scarlett, former Chief, Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

If you want to know the true meaning of optimism, ambition, and burning platforms, look no further.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Baku’s Big Green Smile

You'd kind of think that Norway, or Sweden, or one of those scarily right-on nations would hold the record for having introduced the world's first eco-tax.  Not so.  It's in a very different corner of the European family that this particular green lightbulb first flickered into life.  Baku, Azerbaijan to be precise.  The capital of the easternmost nation in the Council of Europe.

Baku's crowning glory is the Boulevard, a 3km pedestrianised ribbon of tree-shaded parkland studded with cafes, bars and children's rides that curves around the Caspian seafront.  From early morning tracksuited joggers and brisk walkers, to the flirtatious and sharply dressed evening passagiata lasting well into the small hours, the Boulevard is the very last thing you expect to find in a small, oil-and-gas dominated, majority Muslim, former Soviet state.

What’s even more surprising is how this strip of green got here in the first place.  It stands, after all, on the edge of the desert of Gobustan.  On the Absheron Peninsula.  About as fertile as Brighton Beach.

The answer is to do with oil, trading, and one man’s vision.  Baku oil wells fuelled the world’s lamps from at least the time of Marco Polo (who wrote about them).  But it was in the c19th that Baku oil hit the big time.  With the world’s first drilled well (1849), the city began to attract big European names.  The Rothschilds and the Nobels set up shop (or more precisely mansion – both still standing today).  The world’s first oil tanker (a Nobel project) was built to transport Baku oil to Iran across the Caspian.  Baku boomed.

At the same time, the enterprising Mayor of Baku, one R.R. Hoven,  had the brilliant idea of putting an enlightened price on trading oil.  Fine, he said, bring your tankers here, do your deals, fill up, take the oil.  But you must bring them here loaded with fertile soil.

Inch by inch, tanker-load by tanker-load, the Boulevard took shape from 1880 (the year of Mayor Hoven’s green Eureka moment) onwards. 

Which is why today, instead of Dubai-style 500 year old Tuscan olive trees airfreighted in and plonked down in a shopping mall in a desert, there’s a living, breathing, diverse and mature green paradise on the shores of the Caspian.

I’m telling this story not just because I find the sheer creative beauty of it a joy, but because I think it poses a fantastic challenge for us today.

Looked at negatively it’s a polluter/trader pays principle.  If you’re a glass-half-full type, it’s an Environmental Business Bonus (EBB tm, you read it here first).

Mayor Hoven stood up to big business and wrote a rule book which transformed the quality of life for all future generations of the people of Baku.  So what is the Environmental Bonus that countries – particularly small countries rich in natural resources – can demand from the world as the price of doing business today?

The sad truth is we profit from the despoilation of far-away countries which often we prefer to know little about.  Putting a positive environmental legacy at the top of the agenda – making it a normal cost of doing business – is surely the least that can be asked of us.  I’m not just talking about business ‘cleaning up its act’ – I am talking about specific, creative projects which leave cities and countries with a big green smile on their faces.

Like the green ribbon of Baku’s fabulous Boulevard.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Stand confidently - on the wreck of your enemies

I'm just back from a few days in Rome.  I love the city but had never got around to exploring the Forum.  This time I was there with my son Jake and we decided to go for it.

Temple of Caesar, check.  Various triumphal arches, check.  Place where Brutus stabbed Caesar, check.  Temple of the Vestal Virgins, check.  All awesome stuff, and with the background of the Colosseum one way and the Capitol the other, you certainly feel you've got your money's worth.  Speaking of money, you even get to see the melted coins which trickled into the floor of one of the main trading rooms - dating back to an occasion when the Goths arrived and torched the place with so little notice that the traders didn't have time to leave with their cash.  All of us who think the world moves faster these days, and that there's more global interaction, should stop and think a bit when we hear that one.

At the Capitol end of the Forum are the remains of a few walls, no more than a couple of metres high.  So far so blah.  But, dear reader, these are (as you may have guessed) not just any old walls.  These are the remains of the rostra.  This was a platform where all the great orators spoke in public.  Yes, this is where Mark Anthony came to bury Caesar not to praise him.  Basically, if you wanted to say something in ancient Rome, this is where you stood up and said it.

But it's the next detail that really sent my mind racing.  'Rostra', which we now use as a term in theatre for any kind of moveable platforms, actually meant something very specific in Latin.  It was the Romans' word for the bronze battering-rams which early fighting ships had fixed to their prows.  Quite logically, given the value of bronze, a victorious fleet would combine victory spoils with the sweet pleasures of neutering their opponents, by the simple act of sawing off the losers' rostra.  Mostly, those would be fixed onto new ships.  But in 318 BC, following the naval victory of Antium, the Romans brought the captive rostra back to Rome and built them into their (then shiny and new) public speaking platform.

Just think what that means.  You stand there, a politician or an emperor, a captain of armies or of industry, at a moment when you want to charm, calm or castigate your people, to reassure or to rouse them.  And you're literally standing on the wreck of Rome's enemies.  How can you fail?

I am currently wondering what this means for corporate and political communications in the twenty first century.  Let me know what you think...

Tuesday, 29 March 2011


The great nineteenth century thinker Alexis de Tocqueville had a way of assessing the state of health of a society: simply ask people the question, are they fearing to fall or hoping to rise?  We believe this question is one that leaders need constantly to ask – about themselves, about their teams, about the organisations they lead, whether a company, an institution or a nation.

The two statements are a different take on an old and familiar pairing of opposites: carrot vs. stick, or more cynically greed vs. paranoia.  And they seem to echo well with the unusual times we live in - here in the UK with a government desperately trying to balance austerity with aspiration, and right around the world with regimes of fear crumbling as the hopes of a new generation are asserted.

On the one hand there’s the school of optimistic leadership, which believes that a positive attitude – the hope that we will rise – is itself a vital part of ensuring that we do rise. Taken to extremes, this thinking finds expression in ideas like Bhutan’s much-imitated ‘Gross National Happiness’ index.  Prime Ministers and other leaders who take this approach begin to see themselves as Prime Motivators.  And plenty of leaders see an attack on fear as one of their principle duties, taking their cue from the classic line in FDR’s first inaugural, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’.  A classic sporting example is Wimbledon’s defeat of Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final: small, poor, unfancied Wimbledon had nothing to lose, they’d already ‘won’ by getting this far – they could only hope to rise further.  Big, rich favourites Liverpool would have proved nothing by winning – their fear of falling is widely seen as having brough them to their knees. 

So far so (relatively) uncomplicated.  But it’s not hard to find vocal and persuasive opponents to this.  There’s an entire genre of business books devoted to the idea of ‘feeding on the fear’.  Simon Woodroffe, the Yo! Sushi founder, deliberately placed himself in extreme personal debt at the start of his entrepreneurial journey – partly of course to create a pool of investment capital but more importantly to create ‘a pool of fear’.  Bosses are frequently quietly pleased to see members of their teams taking on big personal financial responsibilities (major mortgages, school fees): now they have further to fall, the theory goes, the fear of falling will spur them on to greater performance – and a manager can manipulate that fear with some precision if they choose.  The relentless need for change and re-invention in so many organisations, and the difficulty of establishing the all-important ‘buy-in’ to change among employees, voters and other vital groups, drives leaders time and again to the tricky stratagem of defining and articulating ‘the burning platform’ (a term which has domesticated itself so thoroughly into management speak that we no longer have a sense of the horrific reality which it was first used to describe in the oil industry, in the days before rescue helicopters).    Once employees, voters, shareholders, or taxpayers feel the flames, the logic goes, it will be relatively simple to get all hands to the pumps.

To complicate matters, some of the most iconic stories told of leadership reflect a position somewhere in the middle.  Churchill didn't exactly give a nation hope (or at least only in tiny doses), nor did he push the buttons of fear when he talked about a kind of dogged courage that would ‘never give up’, that promised only ‘blood sweat toil and tears’.  Even his voice, with its deliberately unheroic matter-of-factness, its resolution tinged with weariness, refused to play the game of hope and fear, carrot and stick.  Does this middle way represent ‘the answer’?  Or is it a one-off, successful only because of extraordinary circumstances - not least Churchill's awareness of the unremitting hysteria of Hitler's focus on extreme exaggerations of both hope and fear?

Leaders who want to deepen their understanding of what it takes to succeed should constantly ask this question about fearing to fall vs hoping to rise – asking it in terms of their own motivation, and asking it in terms of their experience of leading organisations through highs and lows.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Is Japan going to hide or stand up?

Japan has a long history of opening up to the world and closing down – like some mythical sea creature which comes to the surface every few centuries to breathe.  

Even before the Earthquake and tsunami hit, the combination of the world's most aged population, over a decade of relative economic decline, and the clearly apparent change from the post-war settlement which left the country as a safe satellite of the unchallenged regional superpower (USA), had created a feeling of drift and dislocation for Japan on the international stage.  

Bids to host big events can be a useful litmus test of whether a country is really up for engaging internationally.  I have seen this at first hand through working on two bids for Japan – Tokyo 2016 Summer Olympics and Japan 2022 FIFA World Cup.  Political ambivalence, uncertain levels of public support, and the personal struggle which I witnessed for Japanese speakers literally to engage, to stand and deliver using English on a world stage, all suggest a kind of withdrawal.  Yet the energy and appetite to take part in the bids – and Japan is gearing up for what will quite possibly be a successful bid for the 2020 Olympics – shows a real desire to embrace and welcome the world.

So to my mind the big question is almost one of Japan's destiny: what effect will the disaster of the past week have on Japan's standing in and relations with the world?  Will it retire to lick its wounds, a wounded environment, wounded infrastructure, a wounded population and economy?  Or will this – as some disaster zones around the world have done with extraordinary success – become a defining moment of re-engagement, of global solidarity for Japan, when it can build relationships of goodwill unlike at any time in its history?