Shooting the baddies won’t solve the problem

Wow – flashback time. Mrs Thatcher died – triggering a tsunami of words and reflections (favourite new phrase: Thatcheration point). Some people danced in the streets.

Where's the ducking stool?
Where’s the ducking stool?

Meantime – four years later – everyone is really excited about punishing the HBOS 3 – as if they were solely responsible for undermining the world’s financial system, and then yesterday the 22,000 partners and staff of KPMG US “unequivocally condemned” the actions of a ‘rogue’ partner for insider trading.

We haven’t yet pinpointed just who was responsible for corrupting the food chain with horsemeat (or rather knowingly passing horsemeat off as beef) but the hunt is on.

I grew up (a bit) in the 80s – I was a child when Mrs T first got in and started working “properly” pretty much the same day she stood down. If nothing else she certainly inspired (caused?) a lot of fabulous music that seemed very angry compared to my elder brother and sister’s Tubular Bells and David Cassidy. (Though now I check out the Beat’s Stand Down Margaret it doesn’t seem nearly as subversive as it did in 1980).

Not for turning?
Not for turning?

Mrs T’s style of leadership was uncompromising, and adversarial. And that adversarial approach characterised everything about the 80s. Every issue, every dispute, every new idea was about who was right and who was wrong – or who was winning and who was losing – or who was good and who was bad.

It was so simple. All you had to do was work out which side you were on.

East or West, US or USSR, Rich or Poor, Blue Collar or White Collar, Goodies or Baddies, Brits or Argies, Cowboys or Indians.

And it seemed every side had some kind of bogey man, someone that we could take as the personification of what they stood for, someone we could laud or someone we could blame. Scargill, Thatcher, Reagan, Galtieri, Billy Bragg, Gordon Gekko.

Great wasn’t it? Much easier than what followed which upset this cosy black and white world with nuanced shades of grey. Gorbachev, Mandela were different kind of leaders – maybe life wasn’t quite as simple as goodies and baddies.

Towards the end of the 80s I spent a load of time in West Berlin – where they didn’t have much time for the adversarial approach. The governing chambers were circular, not formed of opposing benches. The Germans were wary of extremism of any kind and voted tactically to ensure either coalition or strong opposition. Slow and steady – not lurching from one side to the other – was their (successful) recipe for growth. A bit like John Lewis just on a bigger scale.

In a weird late night “grass is always greener” moment I recall my mentor – a fabulously thoughtful and successful chemist who had grown up in post war Berlin and made his fortune from scratch – suddenly telling me, confessing I guess, just how much he admired, really deeply admired, Ronald Reagan for his resolute conviction and “sabre rattling”. This was at the end of the decade when such a view was deeply unfashionable.

I miss the 80s – mostly for the music though, not for this facile adversarial approach. But this week I have felt myself back there – the dancing in the streets, the pursuit of the 3 bankers (why not all the others?), even the “22,000 condemn the rogue” element in the KPMG case all feel a bit like vengeful retribution.

but does it fix anything?
but does it fix anything?

It may make everyone else feel better but it won’t fix anything.

Let’s face it – the issues that brought down the banks are endemic, part of the system – and for all their omissions no single banker can be held responsible for it all. The bigger picture points to a set of dogmas that had got out of control.

Shareholders were drunk on growth, regulators were light touch and the Government was pleased as punch with the growth in the financial sector.

Gordon Brown said to the city: “What you have achieved for the financial services sector we, as a country, now aspire to achieve for the whole British economy.”

In the face of that kind of groupthink, that kind of dogma, it would have taken a pretty brave leader to have said: “hang on a minute, we seem to be running very hot here”.

Still sure about that Gordon?
Still sure about that Gordon?

And banking isn’t the only place where dogmatic thinking and practices are getting in the way.

The integrity of the audit profession globally stands under scrutiny right now – is their independence and objectivity working as well as it should be and in the interests of the broader community. In other words if it was working properly could we have avoided the financial meltdown? This is a systemic question – how can we make auditing better – not a question of individual blame. The 22,000 KPMG employees who condemned Scott London  might feel better about getting rid of a bad apple, but it won’t make the integrity question go away.

The audit profession needs to change to be more proactive – blowing the whistle loud and early on dangerously dodgy clients and doing what it can to make business more transparent (eg reporting on tax contribution – which it could do tomorrow).

Overturning, changing systems that have gone bad, or that aren’t good enough, from within requires enormous strength and leadership. A rare ability to cut through groupthink and dogma and to focus on what’s right. Leaders who aren’t afraid to go against the tide, to make unpopular decisions, to avoid consensus. Leaders like Anthony Jenkins at Barclays or Philip Clarke at Tesco look like they might, just might, be made of this stuff.

Which brings me back to Mrs T. Like her or loathe her she had the courage of her convictions. And we need some of that kind of leadership for those industries that really, deeply, need to change. Finance, food, health, energy. We need leaders who aren’t afraid to go against the grain – but who also really connect with the wider world and what it needs.

Shooting baddies might make us all feel better for a short while. But it’s a distraction from the main task. It won’t solve the problem.

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