BA really asked for it

Things go wrong when a confident company gets too cocky - witness the airline's Terminal 5 debacle. Too much pride can ruin judgment.

by Richard Reeves, who may be contacted at:richard@richard-reeves.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

British Airways did not hold back when making its claims for the new Terminal 5. It would, the airline claimed, be a space in which the passenger could 'rejuvenate, revive and relax', and find a 'natural, logical journey that's so calm, you'll flow through'. Few of the first passengers at the end of March could disagree that the £4.3bn T5 had lived up to the prediction that it would 'transform their travel experience' - but not in the way BA intended.

'Seamless and relaxing' it wasn't. In chaotic, calamitous scenes, at least 15,000 bags were mislaid - a bad luggage day by anyone's standards - and hundreds of flights were cancelled, while passengers were forced to spend hours staring at the 'world class architecture' or fighting for scarce hotel rooms, which quickly went up in price. Many ended up sleeping in the terminal. At least they could say they had spent the night in a Richard Rogers-designed building.

Of course, the debacle appeared worse because of the sharpness of the contrast with the pre-opening promises about the terminal. It is true that the British, and in particular the British media, have a taste for Schadenfreude - but BA really did ask for it. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the early Christians would have been surprised by BA's woes. The Athenians believed that insufficient humility before the gods - what they called hubris - would result in destructive forces being unleashed: the nemesis. This was a message reinforced in the Old Testament: 'Pride goes before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall' (Proverbs 16:18). Another verse of Proverbs explains why this is so: 'Every one who is arrogant is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.'

The idea that 'pride goes before a fall' is, of course, still a current belief, but divine intervention has become a less popular explanation. Nowadays, there is merely a fatalistic sense that the boastful 'had it coming to them'. But there is a paradox in the notion of hubris. A fall requires height, so any kind of claim to superiority is a potential set-up. Consumer economies rely on advertising, enticement and competition. And, of course, we want the people working for firms to be proud of them, and to say so. BA was right to be proud of T5: leaving aside the fact that it is a planet-destroyer, it is beautiful and - once it works - is likely to make flying a little bit less painful.

The problem occurs when corporate confidence spills over into corporate cockiness. BA has something of a history of fancying itself just a bit too much, and the T5 boasts simply went too far. Even BA staff were embarrassed by some of the spin. 'The fact is that it is a terminal at an airport where you catch a plane,' said one. 'The marketing was getting a bit ridiculous.'

In BA's case, the hubris extended only to boastfulness, rather than to a course of action. Hubris at its worst leads to poor decision-making, as a leader or leadership team becomes so convinced of their own judgment and greatness that they fail to look at all sides of a situation. Northern Rock inevitably springs to mind; but in recent years the behaviour of Enron is perhaps the best business example. In these cases, rather than simply preceding the fall, pride causes it.

Hubris strikes political leaders, too. Indeed, it is clear that in the latter part of his tenure as prime minister, Tony Blair became so certain of his judgment that he made some poor decisions - most notoriously to take us to war in Iraq. Here, the cost was counted not in bad headlines or compensation payments but in blood. David Owen, the former foreign secretary and author of In Sickness and in Power: Illness in heads of government during the last 100 years, contrasts Blair's genuine self-questioning over the pros and cons of intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone with his absolute certainty about Iraq. Owen reports one civil servant's recollection of Blair's dismissal of a doubter: 'You are Neville Chamberlain, I am Winston Churchill and Saddam is Hitler.'

Because Blair was proved right about Kosovo and Sierra Leone - at least in the opinion of most - and hailed as a liberator in both countries, he came to develop what Owen diagnoses as 'hubris syndrome', marked by 'excessive pride in his own judgment'. Matthew Taylor, who was Blair's political adviser and now runs the RSA, says Blair's primary frustration in his later years was that he hadn't simply followed his own instinct more frequently, so convinced was he by the end that he had been right all along. Of course, something similar happened to Margaret Thatcher: power always contains the seeds of hubris.

Good leaders are those who, whatever their success, recognise the possibility - indeed, likelihood - of their own failure, too. They welcome dissent; they are willing to change their minds; and they are willing to admit that they get things wrong. Michael Ignatieff, a former professor and cultural commentator, now deputy leader of the Liberal Party in the Canadian parliament, has written: 'The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a president. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion.'

When George Bush was asked in the 2004 election if he had made any mistakes in his first term, he said: 'No.' Perhaps we have learned by now that although all leaders make errors, the ones we want leading us are those who know that.

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