Who’s in charge of the clattering Virgin train? Not Sir Richard Branson. He neither drives the train nor flies the plane nor flicks the switch on your cable TV nor banks the money in your Virgin account. But ask any punter who “runs” the company and you know what the answer will be: that grinning, bearded bloke in a quirky jumper or fancy-dress outfit.
We are all complicit, perpetuating the myth of the solo personality somehow managing every aspect of a vast corporation. Financial analysts, academics, shareholders, employees, journalists – we fixate on the identity of the CEO. “Can Marc Bolland turn Marks & Spencer around?” we ask. “Will Paul Polman transform Unilever?” These are not really very sensible questions.
Excessive rewards at the top, highlighted again last week by a report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), reinforce the idea that CEOs are “other”, a breed apart. This is rarely true. For every exceptional, driven leader who helps bring about big changes, there are dozens of ordinary administrators and bureaucrats being paid fantastic salaries. There is no shame in being a good administrator or bureaucrat. We need both. But while they may receive gigantic pay packages, they will not necessarily have earned them.
The results of the CIPD survey showed how damaging it can be to pay bosses so much more than everybody else. Six out of 10 employees said they felt demotivated by the vast gap in pay; 70% said executive pay was too high in general, although only 44% said that the boss at their particular business was getting too much; more than half said that business’s reputation was being harmed by the excess.
The myth of leadership is also sustained by popular notions about the world of sport. Undoubtedly leaders do matter. More or less the same Chelsea players who won the Premiership last season have performed woefully this season. And a major cause of this collapse seems to be a poor attitude among the squad, provoked by the eccentric and at times unpleasant behaviour of their now sacked boss, José Mourinho.
But Mourinho apparently succumbed to his own mythology, believing the hype that he was a superior and indeed infallible “special one”. Sports coaches, however dominant, however inspirational, need to remember that it is the players on the pitch who win or lose matches. For all that the TV cameras remain fixed on the dugout where the managers sit, and zoom in to capture every twitch of emotional reaction, the players do the work.
What do good leaders do? They hire capable people, and let them get on with their work. They create a space in which their staff can flourish. They delegate as much as possible. They concentrate their energies on getting the big decisions right. This is not easy and deserves credit. But how much?
FTSE 100 companies, and their PR advisers, sometimes say that “running” a big company is a huge task, and in itself justifies a big salary. But as Sir Philip Hampton, a seasoned business figure and chairman of the pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, told the High Pay Centre this year that bigness does not necessarily imply the CEO deserves a huge reward. “The bigger the system, the more the system counts, rather than the person at the top of it,” he said.
No one is indispensable. Great leaders sometimes achieve remarkable things, and deserve their (financial) success. But they almost never achieve these things on their own. Steve Jobs, the force behind Apple, was not a technologist. Sir Alex Ferguson never scored a goal for Manchester United.
Bertolt Brecht, in his poem Questions Asked by a Worker Who Reads, challenges some of the myths of great historical figures in this way:
“The young Alexander conquered India.
On his own?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his Armada went down.
Did no one else weep?
Frederick the Great won the Seven Years War.
Who else won it?
On every page a victory.
Who cooked the celebratory feast?”
We are all in this together. That includes the boss. They may deserve to get paid more than the rest of us. But, surely, not so much more.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010