UK: HANDY'S VIEW - VOICES THAT WON'T BE IGNORED. - Charles Handy finds parallels between the abuse of power for the sake of personal ambition in Richard III and dictatorships which still persist in the corporate world.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy finds parallels between the abuse of power for the sake of personal ambition in Richard III and dictatorships which still persist in the corporate world.

Four hundred years ago Shakespeare wrote his play Richard III for an audience which knew nothing of TV, cinema or videos and which was prepared to stand for nearly four and a half hours to listen to the drama. Either we don't have that sort of stamina any more, or we put a different value on our time, but the result is that Shakespeare's magic, and the insights which his plays offer, are now available only to the determined few. It was in an attempt to serve up Shakespeare at something nearer to the pace at which most of us live our lives these days, that Ian McKellen and the director Richard Loncraine, decided to make a radically different version of Shakespeare's play, using all the visual effects of film, and cutting Shakespeare's text by approximately 75%.

The result is a fun film. If you haven't seen it you should. McKellen clearly revels in his interpretation of Richard as a Fascist dictator in an art deco world of the '30s, set in the London of Shell-Mex House and Battersea power station. How, I wondered, as I watched, would they cope, in this updated version, with that famous line in the final battle scene, 'A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!' In the event we see Richard desperately trying to flee the battle in an armoured car which gets immobilised. The line suddenly becomes very apt, an expression of the despair we all must feel at times, when technology lets us down.

That is one small instance of the way that Shakespeare can still illuminate the paradoxes and dilemmas of our lives. The film as a whole, however, is at first sight unreal, exaggerated, overplayed. The scenes of dictatorship that are portrayed could not happen today, you say to yourself. Democracy would not permit such an abuse of power for the sake of personal ambtion - ambition that was only very slightly coated in a veneer of service to one's country. Come down a level, however, and the film could be seen, not as a satire on society but as an acid commentary on the conflicts of the boardroom and on executive politics. Substitute metaphorical daggers for real ones and there was much in the film which rang true to my experience of corporate life. It raises, then, the question of whether dictatorship is ultimately going to be any more acceptable in business than in society.

It has always seemed slightly ironic that those corporate chieftains who are so adamant about the virtues of a free market often prefer to run a totalitarian regime, together with a centrally-planned economy, inside their own firms. Similarly, although they would be the first to insist on their democratic rights in a free society, they believe that a principled oligarchy is the best way to ensure an effective organisation. They would find a lot of support in Machiavelli who argued, some decades before Shakespeare, that a well-intentioned prince was the best form of government for all, and that the first duty of such a prince was, therefore, to maintain his power base by whatever means were necessary, even if that meant going back on his word, concealing the truth or discarding his friends. 'If all men were good,' he said in his defence, 'such a doctrine would be unacceptable, but all men are not good.'

The trouble is that not all princes are good either. Therein lies the ultimate justification for democracy - the need, at times, to change the prince, or his ways. At present the democratic principle is enshrined in the rights of shareholders, who can eject the prince, or princes, if they prove inadequate, and can, in theory at least, insist on the selection of their successors. That works well enough while the shareholders are owners of the essential property or assets of the firm, and are therefore the real demos or holders of ultimate power. But things are changing.

The shareholders are still the major sources of finance but it is the key employees who are the providers of the expertise which, alone, adds value to the finance. It is now a moot point which group is the real owner of the essential assets, the group who paid the starting price or the group who actually possess the intellectual property in their own persons.

In a free society people have a choice of 'voice' or 'exit'. Voice is the way of democracy, exit the way of the marketplace, the choice to buy or not to buy. If firms choose not to extend the principles of democracy, and voice, to their key workers they will leave them only with the option of exit.

This could be the unintended consequence of downsizing, the unwanted exit of their better people.

Democracy may be a nuisance, and inefficient in the short term, but it could be the essential prerequisite of longer term growth and survival. We are all advocates, these days, of participative management, but democracy goes farther. Democracy means that that those who rule are answerable to those whom they rule, and not just to those who pay them. That can be uncomfortable but the first signs of this new democracy are already there, what with appraisals, more employee shareholders and endless employee surveys. The next step may well be the election of the management, or, more likely, their endorsement by a representative group. And to those who hold up their hands in horror at the thought one can only say: 'Look what happened to Richard when he ignored the voice of the people'.

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