Can business learn leadership lessons from politics?

After a decade of new Labour here in the UK, we’ve all become well used to the idea that government and public sector leaders can benefit from a few tips in private sector commercial savvy. But J Frank Brown, dean of top people’s business school INSEAD, thinks it’s now time to reverse the process, and for business bosses to take a lesson from politicians. At least in terms of how long they can expect to stay in a job.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010
In town to promote his new book The Global Business Leader, Brown – who refreshingly does not himself have an MBA, either from INSEAD or elsewhere – suggests that the CEOs of large organisations ought, like their publicly elected opposite numbers, to be on fixed-term contracts. ‘Four or five years, with one shot at renewal’. This would, he says, have the dual benefit of both encouraging properly planned succession and keeping CEOs minds focussed firmly on the task in hand. By which he means doing what’s right for the company, rather than – as can be the case currently – spending far too much time figuring out how to hang onto their jobs.

Here at MT, we think this sounds eminently sensible. Although we’re not entirely convinced by the succession argument; experience suggests that ‘planned succession’ is almost as much of an oxymoron as ‘military intelligence’ because however carefully you prepare you can’t predict the future, and things just have a habit of going pear-shaped on you.

But anything which tempers the human instinct to strive for control, and having gained it, to keep it - the ‘Will to power’ as Nietzsche had it - is probably a good thing. And if nothing else, fixed-term contracts would at least provide organisations with a much less disruptive ‘last resort’ way of getting rid of a toxic or out-of-control boss than they have at present. An upside which probably looks pretty appealing to the chairs of a number of the world’s more troubled large financial institutions right now.

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