What lasts?

21 June 2022

It's hard to keep up with the ever changing norms and expectations of today's digital world. We live in a fast society, consume fast food, wear fast fashion, and communicate instantly. But what endures? What really lasts, for better or worse?

As I entered my late teens my father bestowed upon me three important pieces of advice:

  1. never use detergent when washing the car as it will damage the paintwork – a Spontex sponge and a bucket of slightly warm water is the only way to go;
  2. red Bordeaux, but white Burgundy; and
  3. never (ever) wear a suit without a tie.

I have followed item (i) assiduously, and often watch bemusedly while soapy cars go through car washes at garages, and have done a decent job with (ii) although my father would not approve of my growing affection for the pinot noir grape.

But it’s item (iii) which I want to talk about.

It has probably been hastened by the pandemic but suit wearing with no tie has become, well, normal. Ties are going the way of hats in the world of male attire. If you look at a street scene from the 1930s all the men are wearing hats - bowlers, trilbies, caps. They were simply a basic element of dress. That all changed in the 1950s and 60s and the same thing is happening now to ties. It’s not unusual these days for me to arrive at a meeting in a tie - old habits die hard - and feel overdressed.

It’s totally fine of course, and a suit with no tie is perfectly smart, but it is an example of society’s changing norms and expectations. And there are of course, in this digital world, many more examples. We now rarely (alas) send hand-written letters, we don’t go to the library to research things and, instead of stopping at the kebab shop on the way home from the office, we await the arrival of Deliveroo at our door with our Phad Thai. All of which has led me to wonder what does endure? What really lasts, for better or worse?   Here are a few thoughts.

1. Process

I know that this sounds dull but process matters. It mattered in 1913 when Henry Ford unveiled the moving production line for cars, reducing the time it took to build a car from 12 hours to 1 hour 33 minutes, and it matters across the business world today. It is the foundation stone of efficiency and success.

The essence of the role of a company’s board is to provide entrepreneurial leadership within a framework of effective controls. Clear, high-quality and efficient processes are necessary to underpin the pursuit of that goal. How is the board agenda set to balance strategy shaping and monitoring with risk assessment and compliance, why are the committees composed as they are and do they add to, rather than confuse, the workings of the board?

When the processes are under-developed or falter, unfortunate consequences can follow. One might look at JD Sports as a case in point. In February the company postponed the release of its full-year results because of delays in completing the audit and the executive chair has recently left with the interim chair saying that “internal infrastructure, governance and controls have not developed at the same pace” as the expansion of the business.

2. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is often defined as the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage and handle emotions. People with high emotional intelligence can recognise their own emotions and those of others and use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour.

Although Henry Ford would not have recognised the term (it is thought to have been coined in 1965) he would surely have recognised the value of managing his own emotions and those of others. Mass production of cars probably created some waves.

In his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman identified its building blocks as:

  • self-awareness - knowing your own strengths and weaknesses;
  • self-regulation - controlling your own emotions and adapting to changing circumstances;
  • social skill - managing relationships to get along with others;
  • empathy - considering other people’s feelings, especially when making decisions; and
  • motivation - being aware of what motivates others.

One might think that Emotional Intelligence cannot be learnt – that it’s innate. Daniel Goleman, however, believes that it can be learnt if you “care enough” and consciously work on your behaviours over time. It is also illuminating to reflect on the Goleman building blocks and see how (in varying mixtures) they have contributed to the enduring success of certain individuals:

  • Jurgen Klopp - I know nothing about football but Jurgen Klopp has an engaging and motivational style which appears genuinely to make a difference to his club;
  • Julie Sweet - is a former lawyer who is now Chair and CEO of Accenture. I was lucky enough to meet her some years ago and still remember how she combined a razor sharp intellect with easy charm and interest in others; and
  • Keith Urban - the consummate entertainer.

3. Dynasty

On the darker side we have the mystical power of dynasty.

Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo in 1815 and exiled to St Helena but a Bonapartist movement continued to work for the return of a Bonaparte to the throne. This movement was led, from the 1830s, by Napoleon’s nephew Louis Napoleon. He won the presidential election which followed the 1848 revolution, with 74% of the vote. Recoiling from the idea of standing down at the end of his term, he staged a coup late in 1851 to remain as president and, following an implausible 97% vote in favour at a referendum in December 1852, became Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.

Whatever his personal merits or demerits, the dynastic power of the Bonaparte name was evident.

Fast forward to the 2020s and it is striking that nothing has changed when it comes to dynastic impact. Three examples:

  • Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos has just been elected as President of the Philippines by a landslide – pretty extraordinary given that his father and mother were run out of the country in 1986 because of their atrocities and corruption;
  • in India, notwithstanding years of decline the Congress party remains in thrall to the Gandhi family even though radical change and new senior faces are surely necessary; and
  • in America the grip which the Donald Trump, an emerging dynast, has over the Republican Party is iron-strong and, even now, 60% of Republicans still believe that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen.

So, the takeaway is that “leadership brand names”, be they Bonaparte, Marcos or Trump, last and can prevail over policies - and much of everything else - in the perception of the electorate.

As a related point, I was struck by a recent line in a thoughtful article in The Economist: “Complex trade-offs struggle to defeat slogans”.

4. Tangible assets

This May an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe sold for US$195 million and a 1955 Mercedes 300 SLR Gull-wing Coupé sold for Euro 135m (by far the most expensive car ever sold at auction).

These are astonishing numbers.

It is not surprising that, in uncertain times, people feel drawn to things that you can touch and feel. Cash will be depleted by inflation and market and monetary volatility cast a shadow over equities and bonds - prices of 75 of the FTSE 100 are down on the year. And bad news follows bad news in the crypto world. The value of the crypto market has fallen from US$3.2trn last November to well under US$ 1trn now.

Art, cars, books, guitars and other collectibles of course, don’t do so well in a low-inflation market. According to the FT, over the long-term art has beaten inflation but lagged behind the S&P 500. There are also bubbles, for example in cars between 2012 and 2015, and carrying costs such as insurance.

But - and here is the enduring point - tangible assets can bring us pleasure every day. The payback is, first and foremost, to our emotions.  

5. Dreams

We sleep “perchance to dream” and our dreams take us to different places and times. They have provided inspiration to authors and artists across time - from Shakespeare, to the Everly Brothers, to Fleetwood Mac, to Yeats:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams.

I have spread my dreams under your feet.

Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

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