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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

Let’s All Throw Tomatoes

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I’ve been bemused by the differing treatment meted out in the media recently to (a) the senior leadership of HSBC, a large bank, and (b) the senior presenter of Top Gear, a popular TV programme.  Full disclosure: I'm a customer at HSBC and watch Top Gear.  Quite a lot, as it happens.

On the one hand, Douglas Flint, the Chairman of HSBC, and Stuart Gulliver, the CEO, have been hauled in front of Parliament.  Their oversight of HSBC’s private Swiss banking operation has been under scrutiny, together with Gulliver’s complicated remuneration arrangements.  The media have gleefully reported accusations hurled their way by MPs.  Newspaper columnists have gone further, calling for Flint and Gulliver to be put in jail.  It’s the modern version of the village stocks.

On the other hand, Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear’s main presenter, has been strongly defended in the press.  Clarkson was allegedly involved in a ‘fracas’ with one of the show’s producers.  Columnists seem to be arguing that, because Jeremy is hardworking, makes the BBC a lot of money and has the same personality off-air as on, it’s OK for him to aim punches at colleagues.  Allegedly.  Moreover, the BBC has revealed how anachronistic and bureaucratic it is just for investigating what happened, never mind reaching a conclusion.

It’s all rather odd.  Last time I looked, HSBC was a solid, well-run bank, so well-run it didn’t need a government bailout.  The emotional response seems completely out of proportion to the alleged failures.

Meanwhile, we know perfectly well that allegations of workplace violence can’t just be ignored.  It has to be dealt with through a proper process which reaches a considered resolution.

So why the radically unequal treatment?  The backdrop is the current distrust of institutions, leaders and their motives – particularly bankers.  Emotional copy sells more papers.  It’s a challenging context for business leaders to deal with.  If you’re in charge, make sure you get good advice, keep your head and manage your reputation like gold dust.

© Patrick Macdonald 2015

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