2004 - Leaders diverted by events
In the mid-19th century, Thomas
Carlyle developed the idea that historical progression
was a consequence of the leadership of great men.
Social movements arising from the industrial revolution,
he decided, needed to be guided by those he called
"captains of industry".
We can identify a similar belief
today if we exchange the "great men"
label for a gender-neutral term such as "great
leaders". We continue to invest such figureheads
with an almost magical ability to change things
for the better, both politically and commercially.
But how much influence and power
do bosses really have? Can they transform companies
and whole industries? Or are their actions always
going to be, to a varying extent, at the mercy
either of events or of other interests?
There seems to have been plenty
of evidence in the past few months to support
the latter suggestion. We need only look at the
debacle at J Sainsbury, for example, when the
board was forced to cancel its appointment of
Sir Ian Prosser as deputy chairman after investors
registered their objections to the move.
Neither the nominations committee,
nor - it appears - its recruitment adviser, Whitehead
Mann, the search firm, had been prepared for such
resistance despite their awareness that Sir Ian,
as chairman, had presided over a forced demerger
of the Six Continents brewing and hotels group.
Sir Philip Watts found himself
equally beleaguered before resigning as chairman
of Royal Dutch/Shell in the face of investor rage
at the overstating of the company's oil reserves
in Nigeria. Around the same time, on the other
side of the Atlantic, Michael Eisner, the chief
executive of Disney, was forced to give up the
chairmanship at the behest of shareholders.
None of these moves happened
in isolation. In each case, shareholder reaction
had been triggered by previous events. At Disney
it was a combination of underperformance and a
hostile takeover bid.
Could any of these events be
said to have been outside the control of the individuals
involved? Each of them has enjoyed strong reputations
in the past. Did they suddenly lose their ability
to make a difference?
Perhaps the real problem is that
we place too much faith in the ability of leaders
to make a difference. We are too quick to hero-worship
them when things go well - and possibly too ready
to dump them when things go badly.
The reality, in fact, could be
that the people at the head of organisations are
less responsible for the way their organisations
develop than either they or we are prepared to
believe. The theory behind this suggestion goes
back almost as far as Carlyle.
It was put forward by Leo Tolstoy
in War and Peace: the writer argues strongly that
the French campaign, leading up to Napoleon's
retreat from Moscow in 1812, was doomed almost
from the start. In fact, Napoleon had not really
wanted the campaign. Once launched, however, events
developed their own momentum.
When Tsar Alexander failed to
capitulate after the French entered Moscow, Napoleon
was left with the option of maintaining an increasingly
undisciplined army in the capital during a Russian
winter or of retreating west. Worried about the
safety of his supply lines, Napoleon chose the
second option and thereafter witnessed the steady
destruction of one of the greatest armies in history.
Similarly, anyone who has tried
to unravel the causes of the First World War will
recall how events conspired to defeat the best
intentions of the leaders of the European powers
to avoid conflict.
Countries that had armed themselves
for war and laid plans for war found themselves
pulled inexorably into the conflict once their
armies were mobilised. Europe was dragged into
war in spite of, not because of, the actions of
its leaders. Some might point to events in the
Middle East today that are reshaping not only
political agendas but also political careers.
Less obvious but equally powerful
undercurrents are changing businesses today. Executives
are being led towards business strategies at times,
not through any hard-nosed experience, but on
a whim. I recall the comment of one senior executive
I know in the earliest days of the internet.
"I don't really understand
what it is or whether it will work for us,"
he said at the time, "But I think we have
to go ahead and get on the web, then see what
happens." There followed a multi-million
pound investment and development programme, accompanied
by a spectacular rise in the company share price
and an equally spectacular fall.
Too often the decisions of company
bosses are interpreted either as acts of genius
or of folly - when, in fact, neither explanation
"A king is the slave of
history," wrote Tolstoy, arguing that the
action of leaders were the consequences of "thousands
of minute causes fitted together". We might
live consciously for ourselves, he decided, but
unconsciously we are no more than instruments
for the accomplishment of historical and social
"In historical events great
men so-called are but labels serving to give the
name to the event," he wrote, "and like
labels they have the least possible connection
with the event itself." Abraham Lincoln was
aware of this phenomenon when he wrote to a friend:
"I claim not to have controlled events, but
confess plainly that events have controlled me."
In all the modern business literature
on leadership you are unlikely to encounter this
argument because it does not fit the model of
"transformational leadership" that underpins
society's need for heroes. In recent years, only
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, has questioned
the star system beloved of headhunters and financial
speculators, noting that the best companies tend
to be led by unassuming types who prefer to avoid
For these reasons I believe it
is time that companies put away their leadership
manuals and re-invested in basic management skills.
Management has been downgraded
prematurely along with the thousands of upper
and middle managers who have seen their careers
cut short in change programmes. Yet these are
the very people responsible for the day-to-day
running of business.
At Borodino, the great battle
before the French reached Moscow in 1812, Tolstoy
noted that, while the opposing commanders made
their dispositions and issued their orders on
the morning of battle, few, if any, of those orders
were carried out. Events were changing constantly
and the generals in the field needed to adjust
their approaches to meet new circumstances.
The same happens in business.
No sooner have the strategists agreed the corporate
direction for the next five years, than a new
product or business opportunity arises to derail
the best-laid plans.
Harold Macmillan, Conservative
prime minister from 1957 to 1963, understood the
biggest problem facing any leader. When asked
to spell it out, he said: "Events, dear boy.
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