BMW and SAP's bosses and the significance of falling down

EDITOR'S BLOG: It shouldn't take horrible accidents for us to feel compassion for corporate titans.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 22 Sep 2015

BMW had a total PR mare this week. At the Frankfurt Motor show the German car manufacturer's boss Harald Krueger went up on stage to make a keynote presentation about new models, the future and his vision for the Bavarian giant. And then he fell over.

It’s a comms person's bad dream. A nightmare for the unfortunate man himself. The headlines, the follow up phone calls from hacks enquiring after his health. Confirmation that he’d only fainted and was going to be fine.  

Inevitably when something like this happens it will have symbolic significance. He’s ‘falling down on the job.’ Cannot take the strain. In Sky’s web report the facts of the incident were added to with this: ‘Since his appointment as chief executive in May, the company's shares have fallen by nearly 19% as concerns surrounding China's economic woes have hit investor confidence.’

The truth is Harald Krueger falling over in Frankfurt ‘means’ very little. But, modern social media being what it is, the poor fellow falling over was all over everyone’s screens worldwide within minutes. I’ve fainted a few times and it’s a bit weird, but you get up again and get on with it.

I have to say, though, I felt terribly sorry for the poor man. There was something about the stills of him in mid fall, swooning and utterly vulnerable, which reminded me of that deeply troubling Robert Capa shot from the Spanish Civil War.

Falling down in the right context is supposed to be hilarious. Chaplin and Buster Keaton knew this. And I admit I sniggered and re-watched the infamous incident when Madonna took a massive tumble on stage in London last year. Shame on me. But business bosses just aren’t supposed to be Madonna. And especially not Chaplin or Keaton.

These days leaders of large organisations are supposed to be near infallible. This means they are placed under unprecedented, unbearable strain. They are the boss, the figurehead, the one expected to know everything, the individual expected to be able to sort it out. The general the troops look up to. When something goes wrong, for those within companies it can be as unsettling seeing your dad cry when you’re a child. Somehow the world is different after that. You never feel quite as secure.

Although it makes sense to focus a company’s culture, what it stands for, around a single leader, there’s a huge danger in this when he or less often she proves human and fallible. You have all your eggs in that one basket. It’s said that Sir Terry Leahy was never quite the same at the helm of Tesco after a nasty skiing accident . It’s certainly significant that the organisation bent over backwards to keep news of his accident quiet.

Fainting on stage is one thing, but what has just happened to Bill McDermott, the head of SAP, is truly awful. McDermott fell down the stairs this summer and by a dreadful fluke the glass he was holding pierced his eye, which he has subsequently lost.

‘I’m still alive, and that isn’t a foregone conclusion after such an accident. Therefore, strange though it sounds, I am happy,’ he told Suddeutsche Zeitung, which I hope enquired with genuine concern after his well-being. ’I feel stronger than before, more passionate, more alive. I am completely available for SAP and committed to my job. The important thing is to get up again, when you fall.’

This statement is so revealing. The first bit seems wry, human, honest, telling. The second bit is for the shareholders. I just really hope that’s how he genuinely feels and that wasn’t a nice phrase given him by his PRs. I mean so what about the day job? Give the poor guy some space. Let’s put our arm round his shoulders.

But no. The world demands explanation, reassurance. That is part of the responsibility of the top job. And here I am scribbling about it. It reminds me of the prurient and downright intrusive bizarre series of bulletins, diagrams and photos about Ronald Reagan’s bowel when he had a polyp removed all those years ago.  

But the truth is people deal with these traumatic incidents in their own ways and must be allowed to do so. Earlier this year, a close friend of mine fell onto a spiked railing, which  shattered his cheekbone and nearly killed him. He had a hideous operation to put his face back together but was disconcertingly normal within weeks, although he takes care when walking over manhole covers now.  

It’s odd and a little shaming that it takes incidents like this to make us show any fellow-feeling, compassion to these titans. Usually they are just rubbished and derided as fat cats and chancers.

By an odd coincidence, I had supper last week with Krueger’s arch enemy Rupert Stadler, the head of Audi. What struck me about Stadler - and this isn’t common among German bosses - is how open, warm and down to earth he was. He even had a few glasses of red and a grappa. I’d go so far as to say he was ‘authentic’, which is a horribly over-used word in this time of Corbynista madness.

Ok, he was going to be up before 5am the following morning to take his Gulfstream back to a board meeting, but for a short while he was one of us. Almost. Except we don’t have to worry what the collapse of the Chinese car market means for his bottom line and the future of all his employees.  When we shook hands at the end of the evening I genuinely wished him well. And I hope he can stay on his feet.

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