Monday, 15 April 2019


The art of the modern  leader

In a recent poll by the Hansard Society and Ipsos Mori, most people polled said they wanted a “strong” leader (whatever that means) and 54% approved of a leader who’d break the rules.

I’m deeply suspicious of this.

Currently the most successful leaders in sport and business are a more consensual breed. They recognise we no longer live in a world where blind obedience is demanded.  I once witnessed something in an American business to whom we were consulting. The Chairman had a bee in his bonnet about introducing colour variants to their flagship brand to make to more appealing to children. We begged his top team to tell him this was insane, wrong and doomed to failure. They wouldn’t … and it was.

Obedience is over-prized. “Because I said so” was always the worst reason to give a child for doing something they disagreed with. And our world is slowly changing in recognition of  this. “So what about loyalty to the company?” I’m asked. Loyalty goes both ways and all the loyalty in recent years has been to investors and top management rather than to the downsized workforce. 

I was once asked to do a presentation on Generation Z to a household name in office
equipment. All the available research and that I did myself showed they were mostly fair minded, determined to do a good job,  unimpressed with material  possessions, sceptical about things like simple  “career paths” or “property ladders” and most of all disinclined to take instruction at face value. They interviewed rather than were interviewed and took instruction reluctantly. The senior executives listened to this with stony faced incredulity whilst at the back of the room the interns were applauding.

Today leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are praised  by those who might in the past have applauded Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini – men who made things happen – people who saw things in black and white and in capital letters. In business such leaders would be characterised by comments like “at least you knew where you were with Tom” which is rather like saying you know where you are with Ebola.

In the 2020s, as they approach, we need a new breed of leader and top team that coaxes the best out of their people rather than tries to beat it out of them.  Above all they need to be leaders who are selfless, better listeners and great coaches. Leaders who say “we” not “I”. Here’s what gurus at Harvard say:

People will be more effective leaders when their behaviours indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us … rather than their own personal interests.“  (Kim Peters and Alex Haslam Harvard Business Review August 2018)

Old fashioned attitudes to leadership exist because we’re reluctant to discard our worship of historical role models. But the world is changing so leaders had better change too or be changed.

Monday, 8 April 2019


I’ve been intrigued by the story in America about rich parents paying large sums of money to get their children into the top Universities. The scale of the scam is extraordinary. William Singer’s business, “The Edge College & Career Network”, has pleaded guilty to masterminding the scheme helping children of wealthy people get into universities through bribing college athletic coaches, having other people take admission tests for the applicants and hiring people to correct students' incorrect answers on those tests.

He faces up to 20 years in gaol. His “clients” have invested over $25 million with him to get their children into these universities. Strategies have included applying for sports scholarships like swimming, though they couldn’t swim. There are 50 rich and famous parents in the investigation (see above) the FBI are pursuing. The case is the largest of its kind to be prosecuted by the US Justice Department. 

How far would you go to get an unfair advantage for your children? Where does white become grey and when is it clearly black? Does spending £33,000 a year on sending your child to boarding school count as bending the rules? Obviously we’ve decided not although this is about the same as the gross average annual earning of those in full time work.

More interestingly government pays up to £6,000 a year per pupil in state schools which compares with £17,000 it costs for day pupils in private education.  Is this fair when the only reason such disparity exists is because of parental wealth? It’s a thorny issue and in a free democracy social engineering is something we rightly try to avoid. But and it’s a big but  …. Shouldn’t we be trying to make top quality education available to all; shouldn’t we be turning flickering flames of talent into great flames? That was what grammar schools were supposed to be all about.

The reason I care so much about inequality at the scale we see it, is that it’s such bad business for the country and I care about that. As does Janice Turner, Times journalist, who said this on Saturday:
I don’t care about Brexit. I fear for our country”.

For “Brexit” read Trump, Macron or Erdogan in America, France and Turkey. 

The fears we have relate to the reasons these people have been elected.  When deep rooted issues exist the equivalent of Japanese Knotweed flourishes. This ghastly plant is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world's worst invasive species.

Actually, provided we get rid of the knotweed, I don’t fear for our countries because I think we are pretty resourceful and resilient people. We need to watch it though. Any suspicion of complacency should be over after the past three years and we all need to remember that how we vote carries more of a punch than we thought.

By the way there are more of us than them…

So cheer up and look out for the knotweed.

Monday, 1 April 2019


Outside the sun’s shining, the birds are singing, cats are rolling sensuously in the dusty earth and the Jays are contemptuously flying over them with their ‘look-at-me- you-losers’ plumage.

It’s the most gorgeous of Saturdays and I’m in a can-kicking grump.  Others are too. People I’ve always heard speak in mild and careful tones have become “effers and blinders”. Quentin Letts got it right when he suggested that Dominic Grieve begging for “compromise” was like Don Juan advocating celibacy.

My friends in Europe don’t call me like they did. In common with the rest of Britain I’m regarded as dotty and not to be taken seriously or trusted.

Unsurprisingly (and I think this is the norm) I’ve rather given up on politicians, their motives and their command of any picture bigger than their soon to be dwindling constituency vote in the election that’s looming. Expect some shocks when that happens.

How about this doomsday scenario?  Another hung parliament but with a scrambling of the old orders through wipe-outs for both Tory and Labour, the latter from disgruntled leavers migrating to UKIP, the former because the ERG has made conservatives seem unelectable to many life-long Tories.

Greens, Independents and the occasional Liberal will take up the slack.  If the founder of the Raving Monster Looney Party, the late Screaming Lord Sutch were alive he’d have fun. Since for many protest is the only alternative to not voting at all we can expect more Martin Bells to emerge (he was the Independent who usurped Tory Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997.)

Civil War? Nothing so crude just a loud and inharmonious bellow of “a plague on both your houses”.  And this is sad because all the MPs I know and have known, with just a few exceptions, were hard working, honourable and doing the job for worthy motives. We knew that they didn’t think or behave like us of course, being constantly in fear of the whips, their constituency, a faux pas on Question Time or losing it all in an election.

But the game, such as it was, is over. We’ve had enough and we shan’t take it anymore. So expect some shocks. I can just about take becoming a medium sized economic entity and a third ranking political entity…just about …but a laughing stock?

But why not? Our proudest assets include cartoons, Private Eye, TWTWTW, The News Quiz, Paul Merton, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais and so on. Laughter is what we do; irony is our language. My memories of business at its best is rueful laughter in the face of disaster and the constant ability to make jokes when the chips are down. 

Banter has got very bad press recently but only because everything has become too serious. It’s time we stopped kicking cans down the road and started laughing again and making jokes about  the folly of politics.

Laughing stock? I think winning that accolade’s  the equivalent of a political Oscar.

Monday, 25 March 2019


Everyone I know is wandering around saying they’re  miserable, weary and off-colour. So it was surprising to discover we’d shot up the league table in a recent global “Happiness Index.”  It isn’t as though this was after we’d beaten the Czech Republic 5-0 with a team of young stars which  cheered me up.

But then I read the Sunday Times and the political analyses and I got miserable again. I called a friend who’d been a senior civil servant and he patiently explained “You must understand that politicians are not like us. They don’t think or behave like us.”

Well if these blogs I write are going to have any value at all (and you must realise I intend them to have the same effect on you as a large, exceedingly cold dry martini) then I had to find some cheerful ingredients. This means this’ll be a very short piece or something strange will have occurred like me drinking dry martini. Slurp! … we are lucky to be alive in “sush” times. 

First I read that many Germans think they are watching real democracy at play in the UK right now. Profound out-in-the-open debate. Unashamed arguing about who, what and why we are as a country. Sacred cows are lying slaughtered beside our potholed roads. Why can’t everyone have a voice rather than being muffled by the EU? Well that’s an amusing take.

Then there’s the Danny Devito of Westminster,  John Bercow. Throughout the world he’s becoming a rock star. In Germany (again) he’s been given Wagnerian status (that’s saying something.) They claim he doesn’t say or even shout “ORDER!” He sings it. After this is over Little John will be the highest paid one-man show ever on the global stage.

Jacinda Ardern PM in New Zealand with whom everyone has fallen in love not least because unlike nearly all politicians she is like us and she thinks and behaves like we wish they all would. She’s done more to change global gun laws than anyone else has done by reading the timing right and just saying “banned”. She really has put New Zealand on a new thought-leading map.

And of course it’s Spring.  A week ago there was an article about Spring by Caitlin Moran that made me roar with laughter – that moment of levity didn’t last too long (obviously). She said it’s the best of all seasons not least because it’s fresh, exciting and comic. Things grow where they shouldn’t and at an enormous rate. I thought about Keats and his eulogy of Autumn. How dare he not write one about Spring instead of leaving it to Wordsworth.

Here is Wordsworth lounging about as poets do “in pensive mood” recalling those daffodils

“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”

But it’s their boisterousness I love. Like a rowdy football crowd shouting “Yellow. Yellow. Yellow.”

 There you are then. Another injection to the Happiness Index- it’s zooming on up. Hurrah!

Monday, 18 March 2019


I wondered if I was unwell. I’ve been feeling tired, listless, irritable and prone to outbursts of inexplicable rage.

Things came to a head last week when I was writing my book – that alone might be the cause – when the front door bell rang. I work at the top of the house in a tower so it takes 50 steps to get to the front door. Despite my bellowing “I’m coming” a pamphlet was being pushed through the letterbox. “No” I shouted so it was rapidly withdrawn tearing as it was pulled out.

I flung open the door to find a short woman with a young man. Not Jehovah’s Witnesses, not obvious salespeople, not neighbours.

“I’m not sure what you want but I’m very busy right now”

She smiled “I just wanted to ask if we could count on you voting Green in the forthcoming Council Elections.”

Suddenly one of those rages surged and I exploded into a rant.

“Politicians! You ought to be thoroughly ashamed -  all of you. Delivering promises which you replace with expedient ideas, prevaricating, destroying people’s hopes and lives. My wife and I shall probably never vote again. There’s no point. You are guilty of terrible things”

She seemed unruffled by this and calmly explained this was a local not a General Election.

“But you politicians are all the same” I snarled (it was meant to be a snarl but didn’t really sound menacing).  I changed tack and turned to the young man “you’ve said nothing – Why should I vote for this person?”

He fixed me with a level gaze “Actually I think you should, she’s very good, works really hard and cares about important stuff….”

She interrupted “He has to say that;  you see he’s my son and I’m cooking his dinner tonight.”

I was nearly won over and the rage had subsided.

A combination of the extraordinary behaviour at Westminster, my having temporarily given up alcohol and this book which as such things always are is a little exasperating may be the cause of my wrath and howling rages - they ought to call me Wolf Hall – but we can fix one right now.

In Saturday’s Times Patrick Kidd quotes from Richard Harris’ book “The Wicked Wit of Ireland “

“I formed a group called Alcoholics Unanimous. If you don’t feel like a drink, you ring another member and he comes over to persuade you.”

The second is fixed too. The book is finished bar corrections, editing and a bit of rewriting.

And the third will be cured by political abstinence and thinking about better things. The Sorolla exhibition is at the National Gallery. He’s Spanish, late 19th century and is called “The Master of Light”.

Most of his painting was done in the open air and is truly joyful, When I look at “Sewing the Sail” I cannot give a fig for Brexit or Westminster.

All I can see is dappled sunlight, the sea and laughing, contented people.

Monday, 11 March 2019


I got a call the other day. It was a wrong number, a Mr Sculley from Nuneaton who was sorry to bother me. He said he was old (actually only a bit older than me) recently bereaved and prone to misdial. He blessed me for being kind and said “can I ask one thing?”

“Please tell those politicians to sort things out. It sounds like they might listen to you.”

Not even me I’m afraid. I suspect there are Sculley’s all over the UK desperate for people to stop this nonsense. We have made our bed – that was the referendum – we got a result a lot of us hate but we have to get on with the best departure we can fashion. That’s what’s on the table and now we need to progress. The option of the crash-out at the end of this month is no longer in our hands if the EU petulantly refuses an extension to Article 50 and this has to be possible.

Whichever way this goes our automotive industry and other businesses will be wrecked, although new technology would have made this probable eventually anyway. Sadly many of the people cheering on BBC Question Time for a no deal exit will soon be out of work partly because of it. Their relish for self-destruction is mystifying.

We are in a period of global readjustment and tough times for everyone (except, as ever, the very rich).  I’m not sure when in our history 2019 most resembles. Perhaps the early 16th century when Henry VIII broke free from Rome. (In the way he’s generally depicted he resembles a recklessly autocratic Donald Trump.) But in that late medieval troubled era England managed to punch above its actually rather meagre weight. The key similarity was the rebelliousness of our behaviour and a deep seated belief that normal rules did not apply.

And it’s still here and like the kraken it’s re-awoken. We see schisms appearing in politics  and in social attitudes to institutions. We used for instance to believe that the unanimous decision of a jury in a trial was final. It would be unusual for the media, as the Times did on Saturday, to continue to describe the pilot, Andy Hill, in the Shoreham Air Show tragedy whom a jury found not guilty of manslaughter, in terms which implied he was actually guilty.

Disruption is becoming rebellion and this feels dangerous. Our societal tectonic plates are  shifting around. I doubt if any of us would put money on May and Corbyn (described by Jess Phillips as being as old fashioned and irrelevant as Tom and Margo from the old TV series the “Good Life”)  still being in office by the summer.  Dangerous times but they also feel challenging and perhaps offer us the possibility of a new start rather like a relegated football team and that’s how we feel right now. 
 We are becoming increasingly rebellious but rather carelessly are about to score an own goal. Oops!

Monday, 4 March 2019


We are living in a DIY world in which bodging amateurs like me reluctantly volunteer to sort out long standing domestic defects usually to catastrophic effect. When we moved four years ago it seemed the previous incumbents – presumably  the husband – had succumbed to pressure and agreed to hang some pictures which had been hanging around for years.

We don’t know exactly what happened but we can’t fault the apparent enthusiasm with which he set about his task armed, we’d guess, with a sledgehammer. We cannot know whether or not he’d fortified himself with a bottle of good strong Malbec before donning his overalls and sallying forth. We cannot be sure if the air was blue with words seldom heard and always recorded in the media as ******* or ****! But we can be sure that the task was not as simple as it seemed.

To be fair the walls in Brighton are mostly made of a material unique to the area called “bungaroosh” which comprises miscellaneous materials such as whole or broken bricks, cobblestones, flints , small pebbles and sand from the beach mixed with  hydraulic lime. It never caught on outside Brighton (obviously) and in Brighton, builders curse the memory of the idiot who thought up this wretched substance.

The consequence of ignorance, drunkenness, skill-deficit and bungaroosh meant a series of abortive cavernous holes where flint obstructed the insertion of a nail, screw or eventually I’d guess whatever came to hand. It looked as though someone had been blasting the wall with a 12 bore shotgun – well perhaps not quite but I like that image.

There’s a serious point here. I wouldn’t ask someone who knew nothing about it to do my accounts or someone who’d never driven to be a chauffeur. Doing work around the house that is effective, long lasting and not unsightly requires skill, experience, patience , time and the right tools. Which is why our DIY man has been such a find. Recommended by our nephew He’s spent a week doing all those jobs that in four years have guiltily remained on my “to-do” list. And our lives have been miraculously transformed. Doors now close, cupboards are opened with smart knobs as opposed to being prised open with a screwdriver, draughts have been excluded and touch up painting has been done so we can’t even remember where those irritating splodges were.

DIY is the curse of the 21st century. Get a pro to do your IT, your accounts, your marketing, your legal work, your mending. In the long run it’ll be cheaper , better and a whole less stressful. Stressed is what the scammer, allegedly from BT, must have been when he rang early on Friday morning.

“Hallo this is BT” an Indian voice said.
“Oh no it isn’t” I said jovially.
“Oh f*** off you f*****g mother f****r” he said and rang off.

That is terrible scamming. It’s DIY stuff. No good at all except to wake you in the morning.