December. The end of a year that began quite promisingly and concluded with most people eager to see the back of it. Who would have thought 12 months ago, with world economies growing at a respectable rate and confidence still blooming, that we'd now wind up staring down the twin barrels of recession and war?
Year-end is also the time for our annual and widely anticipated Most Admired Companies survey. And for 2001 it has brought rather a quirky line-up. We have an old stager from a mature industry returning to the number one slot. After a 10-year absence, Shell finds itself back in favour. Perhaps those times are back when the reassurance of its old advertising slogan, You can be sure of Shell, resonates once more.
The newcomers to the Top Ten come from the other end of the spectrum: Next, run by the youthful Simon Wolfson, and Selfridges, which has undergone a transformation under its Italian boss, Vittorio Radice. We've got four retailers in this year's Top Ten, but who can be sure that retail will be quite so favoured in 2002? Who on earth will make it into the next Top Ten? In the present environment, there is even more uncertainty than usual. One thing's sure: those who run the companies that earn most admiration next year will have shown nerves of iced steel and great powers of leadership.
It's true that for some careers in business, as in politics, a crisis can do wonders. Look at Rudy Giuliani, who has just stood down as mayor of New York. Earlier this year, he was caught up in a highly embarrassing legal tussle with his ex-wife, who refused to quit Gracie Mansion, the official residence; he was also suffering from cancer. Now he is an all-American hero, feted for his skills as a leader and picking his way through an assortment of job offers. Yet, despite heroic stories of this type, one has to be wary of losing a sense of priority and perspective. Fortune magazine announced recently that 'After years of losing ground to its dowdy cousin management, leadership is back'. If this is true, it has a worrying corollary. Our own national leader's strutting on the world stage in his mission to stiffen international resolve has given him less time to deal with domestic management issues, which are just as pressing as they were before 11 September. The heroes of business over the next year will be those who manage as well as lead their organisations through the difficult months ahead. It's not all 'Once more unto the breach!'; it's also watching the balance sheet back at HQ behind the front line.
In the meantime, here's a tip from Rudy - the new management guru - about how to deal with dire crises and how much emotion you should show: 'It's OK to show quite a lot. But it's not OK to show fear.'