An excellent article on Brexit by Theodore Dalrymple contains this paragraph:
Theresa May did not emerge from a social vacuum. She is typical of the class that has gradually attained power in Britain, from the lowest levels of the administration to the highest: unoriginal, vacillating, humorless, prey to the latest bad ideas, intellectually mediocre, believing in nothing very much, mistaking obstinacy for strength, timid but nevertheless avid for power. Thousands of minor Mays populate our institutions, as thousands of minor Blairs did before them.
The good doctor might not know this, but the rot isn’t just limited to the political classes and national institutions; it extends right through the corporate world too. The description of May could apply seamlessly to any number of managers I’ve encountered throughout my career, just as this could apply to several business units I’ve found myself working in:
Avidity for power is not the same as leadership, and Brexit required leadership.
In my 15 years in the international oil industry I came across very little actual leadership – there were some exceptions – and an awful lot of managers who took the post because it represented the next rung on the ladder and that’s where the system required them to stop for a while. The only thing they cared about was looking good in the eyes of their hierarchy and keeping their nose clean until the next promotion. Their department – its people, processes, and objectives – were seen as an inconvenience in exactly the same way May and the rest of the political classes see the population as an inconvenience.
Yesterday MPs voted to extend the deadline on Article 50 by 313 votes to 312, the winning margin provided by a convicted criminal who attended parliament wearing an ankle bracelet. To the ordinary citizen this is an abomination, but the political classes think they’ve done nothing wrong. I used to see this in the corporate world. We’d do some technical work and the results – usually technical or financial – would make the CEO unhappy, and therefore the middle management look bad. So management would demand the work be redone again and again, abandoning principles, processes, precedents, and best practices, in order to deliver the results they wanted. They’d shop around for whatever methodology would give them the outcome they desired from the beginning, yet convince themselves they were doing things properly. Not once would they reflect on the damage they’d caused to the integrity of their own organisation or the problems they’d encounter in the future. Convinced of their own propriety, they simply didn’t care.
They say politics is downstream of culture, and business is almost certainly downstream of both. The behaviour I describe is so widespread one can only assume it derives from the culture, and has probably always been there. The difference now is the incentives are so aligned that these people get rewarded before everyone else, whereas in previous eras they’d have been shoved to the sidelines by people who operate in a wholly different way. This isn’t just about politics, it’s about the direction the entire society has taken. If things are to change, the incentives to behave badly must be removed and replaced with those which reward different behaviours. Normally that takes both sticks and carrots. As far as I see it, we’re all out of carrots; it’s time to get a bigger stick. Change, in this case, will have to come from the bottom. That means you.