Denise Kingsmill: How experience failed us

Old hands have failed to curb youthful excess. We need a new template for more diverse leadership.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What's age got to do with it?, as the amazing Tina Turner might have sung as she strutted her stuff in gold lame, five-inch Louboutin heels and a mane of blonde hair during her recent UK tour. At 70, the power of her voice and the energy of her dancing show no signs of waning. 'I want some of whatever it is she's taking,' thought every woman over 40 in the audience.

But although age has not dimmed her as a performer, telling the audience how she liked her men 'rrrough!' suggested that her experience of the violent Ike had not brought her wisdom. Okay, we are talking about a rock diva here and similarities with corporate executives are tenuous. But this made me question some popular assumptions about age, experience and the getting of wisdom in a business context.

In his essay, Of Youth and Age, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) reflects on the attributes of each condition and their respective contribution to business and affairs of state. He argues that 'Young men are fitter to invent, than to judge; fitter for execution than for counsel; and fitter for new projects than for settled business'.

The virtues of young men in business are, as he sees it, energy, innovation and action, but they tend to be limited by lack of foresight, over-commitment and an unwillingness to admit mistakes. Older leaders 'object too much, consult too long, adventure too little' and are content with mediocrity. However, Bacon concludes: 'It is good to compound the employment of both because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both'. It is remarkable that, four centuries on, this is a good template for today's governance model for listed companies.

The classic example of the younger, ambitious chief executive counselled and restrained from excessive risk-taking by the older, wiser chairman is the widely approved norm. But it did not work out that way in either of the Scottish banks that the Government has had to rescue, where experienced chairmen were unable to curb the excesses of the CEOs and, indeed, seemed intimidated by the vigour, aggression and arrogance of their younger colleagues. Perhaps they were reminded of themselves as young men and preferred to encourage rather than curb the scope and ambition of the apparently successful executive on a profit-making spree or acquisition quest. They seem to have behaved like indulgent fathers, unable or unwilling to exercise the necessary authority.

In both cases, the executive leadership was almost wholly male, and it could be that the lack of diversity at the top encouraged a groupthink that precluded dissent, even by the chairman. Wisdom certainly was not evident here.

One of the saddest stories of the failure of experience to prevail is that of Arnold Weinstock and GEC. Having created a hugely successful enterprise, the former chairman had to watch the business collapse under his successors, who seemed to reject all that had gone before. The wise counsel of GEC's founder was never sought and Lord Weinstock died with his corporate legacy and personal fortune all but destroyed.

Never assume, though, that age and experience inevitably produce wisdom. The fact of having done something before does not automatically mean you do it better next time - as my ski instructor will attest. Sometimes, you make the same mistakes again and again.

I experienced an awful sense of deja vu when the Conservatives, in a transparent and doomed attempt to compensate for the lack of experience on the Opposition front bench, brought back a former chancellor who supported Margaret Thatcher's laissez-faire deregulation of the banks and the City - which has undoubtedly contributed to the current disaster.

For the Lib Dems, St Vince seems to upstage his youthful leader every time with his wise, prophetic warnings, while the prime minister just looks deathly tired, unable to convey in our sound-bite age the wealth of experience and wisdom he undoubtedly possesses.

By contrast, how exciting the youthful US President looks and sounds - though Bacon warns that early promise may fade and that while youth may have 'favour and popularity ... authority followeth old men'.

As the global economic plates shift and shudder, we must reflect long and hard about the kind of leadership we need in both our body politic and our corporations. We have to recognise the collective failure of our corporate leadership when it is staring us in the face. For, although there are honourable exceptions, it has failed. We must develop a sustainable leadership model that will guide us through the bad times and help us recover.

We need depth and breadth of experience, and energy and optimism, a mix of the qualities of youth and age. Less pale, male and stale and more diversity, not only of gender but also of thought, would be a good start. Let's have fewer conquering corporate heroes and try a more collective, co-operative approach instead.

Perhaps we could learn from organisations such as John Lewis, owned by its employees and with a fair and transparent bonus system, which continues to make healthy if slowing returns in the retail nightmare taking place elsewhere on the high street. We need a radical rethink of the traditional leadership model as we contemplate the unhealthy prospect of government-owned banks - surely the clearest sign of corporate meltdown. As Bacon said: 'The errors of young men are the ruin of business; but the errors of aged men amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner.'

Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of plc, private, charitable, arts and government boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways

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