England settles into its regular Easter break. We have the traditional confusing weather for this time of year. Spring is trying to land a knockout blow, but winter is a tricky fighter, ducking and weaving, resistant to the last.
This week, United Airlines perpetrated the mother of all PR disasters. Given the opportunity, EUFA managed to equal that crass insensitivity after a terrorist attack before a Champions League match
I have commented in the past, that airline leaders often display depressingly high-visibility egocentric leadership styles. A few retain some public credibility but even those such as Richard Branson attract hostile as well as admiring headlines. More typically, we find boorishness personified in figures such as Ryanair’s Michael O’ Leary, or arrogance elevated to an art form, as illustrated this week by United Airlines’ leader Oscar Munoz. The Fortune publication made a similar point.
LWD subscribers will be aware of the video of the incident, in which a paying passenger was dragged bleeding and screaming from a flight. The incident and initial remarks by Munoz were followed by a billion dollar drop in share value of the company. Nice one Oscar, who eventually did a Trump-like pivot, declaring such behaviour on the airline will never be repeated.
Meanwhile a terrorist attack in Germany targeted Dortmund’s football team coach which was being driven to a Champions League match against Monaco. Only minor injuries occurred although there could been more serious outcomes. The match was postponed for a day. There was a spontaneous coming together of rival fans against the terrorist actions before and during the match. Dortmund lost narrowly, but the reactions of the fans were widely praised. Later it emerged that the footballing leaders at EUFA had responded with a similar insensitivity to that displayed by United Airlines. A text message to the Dortmund officials made it clear that the only priority was to play the match as quickly as possible.
A few weeks ago, an objection was raised against a potentially dangerous pitch by Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. He claimed the UEFA response was that the match should go ahead, and the players were fully insured.
EUFA is the European arm of FIFA, that exemplar of corruption in the sporting world, competing for the title with the Olympics authorities and their anti-Drug agencies.
I try to find some positive learning messages in LWD posts. Perhaps the reactions of Dortmund and Monaco fans give a glimmer of hope. Maybe Oscar Munez will have an O’Leary Damascene conversion to ethical leadership. Maybe EUFA will show some recognition that they will have to try harder to escape the legacy left by its association with FIFA’s antics under disgraced leader Sepp Blatter.
The wondrous striving for innovation in Formula 1 racing suggests a modern version of the Glass Bead game in Herman Hesse’s masterpiece and the answer to the question ‘what’s the use of a baby?’
The idea struck me as I admired the unfolding story of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix race recently. Such effort, courage, innovation, political intrigues, strategy. Many ingredients for an MBA elective, I thought.
Then I asked myself the dangerous existential question, what’s the point of it all? At the back of my mind, I dimly recalled the question “what’s the point of electricity?” asked of Michael Faraday, who allegedly replied “what’s the use of a baby?“
A little research suggested that my memory had accessed an urban scientific myth. Among other versions, Ben Franklin replied to the question “what’s the use of a ballon?” with a similar answer. Among other unconfirmed replies is another on the subject of the use of his electrical ‘toys’. I cannot say the use, he is alleged to have replied, but I can guarantee that one day you will be able to tax them.
For whatever reason, challenging the purpose of Formula One also reminded me of Herman Hesse’s classic, The Glass Bead Game. The book is set in the future, where the highest of human achievements are conducted in a province dedicated to the life of the mind. Students are all male [a point worth noting]. The pursuit of knowledge involves devoting one’s life to studying and playing the complex Glass Bead game, which I think of as multi-dimensional Go and Chess.
The central character is Knecht. Like much of the book, the name has subtle references, in this instance to Knight (which linguistically relates also to Servant). His journey to enlightenment and to becoming Magister Ludi (Lord of the Game) is traced. An important theme is the value of a community closed off from the outside world.
This question increasingly disturbs Knecht, as his path unfolds. He reaches a personal crisis and leaves the boundaries of the closed province to serve in the outside world. There are several embedded levels of story at work as the book reaches not so much a conclusion as with a necessary incompleteness. At one level, the story ends with the death of Knecht. The narrator asserts there is far more which cannot be told.
It is not difficult to re-examine Formula One through the lens of The Glass Bead Game. The provinces set aside for the pursuit of the FI game co-exist with regions of the outside world, but isolated from them. The boundaries are fixed in time and space for the practice sessions and for the games themselves. Players are admitted from lower level disciplines, F2 being the next highest.
Rules are strictly administered, but as in Glass Bead contests, no two games are identical. Over time, the dedication of industrious and dedicated players enriches the game. Many innovations occur. Sometimes the argument is used that the innovations enrich the well-being of the world outside by modifications to everyday automobiles, making them safer, more energy efficient, so therefore more environmentally efficient. One enterprising group of medical researchers was grant funded to study the efficiency of in-race pit-stop team work, to transfer the knowledge to the logistics in operating theatres.
These arguments would not calm the moral concerns of an F1 Joseph Knecht aware of the general lack of enthusiasm in Glass Bead racing for changes away from clean energy use, or for reducing pollution visited on cities around the world hosting the games. A similar case for real-world gains from the space-exploration Bead Game ended in the weak claim that the intellectual efforts produced the non-stick frying pan. [For the record, the reverse causality has also been suggested for space exploration.]
Electric cars in F1 seem an oxymoron, as their silence is anathema to the tradition of the sport, and a regression from the ultimate purity demanded by initiates and Magister Ludi alike. Revolutionaries dreaming of F1 pioneering electric cars, are being urged to replace the silence with the traditional throaty roar of petrol engines.
These dystopic thoughts of mine cannot conceal the appeal of the wonderful Glass Bead game which is the Formula One enterprise. The lengthy years of rule by Bernie Ecclestone as Magister Ludi seem to be drawing to a close. Whether a Joseph Knecht figure will emerge as new leaders remains open, like the end of Hesse’s masterpiece.
I turn my attention to another ivory tower question I have heard from time to time, in business school workshops. ‘What’s the use of an MBA?‘ As Benjamin Franklin might or might not have said, ‘I cannot tell you exactly, but I guarantee you will be taxed on your earnings from it, one day‘.
It is March 29th 2017. Shortly after midday, a letter from Prime Minister Theresa May will be handed over to Donald Tusk, the President of the EU. It will be a symbolic and historic gesture signifying the start of the process of our withdrawal from the European Union The letter is said to bear a Wet Signature.
Sometimes a term is so evocative that I immediately register interest in turning it into a book-title, before I have written a single word of the book. That was my reaction this morning on hearing about The Wet Signature. It suggests spying and visceral actions. The cover of the book would have a figure slumped over a piece of paper. A pen had fallen from a lifeless hand. Ink (or is it blood?) oozes down the paper, and onto the desk.
The letter from Theresa May is signed by hand. A photograph purporting to be the actual moment of signing has been released and will be endlessly replicated in the old and new media.
A tale of two Donalds?
Yesterday, a photograph was released of Donald Trump allegedly signing The Energy Independence Executive Order which will dismantle President Obama’s climate-preserving legislation.
Each gesture signals changes taking place which will have global consequences. Politically, each requires leadership of the highest order.
It is an irony that Theresa May at the moment has two Donalds to deal with. Each will need careful managing if she is to achieve her stated objective of obtaining the best possible deal for the UK.