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Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Leadership Crisis Is Ours To Resolve

Paul Moore's recent evidence to the Treasury Select Committee reveals the kind of top-down culture in the UK financial system that explains not only rampant over-expansion and the financial chicanery that went with it, but also arrogant, self-interested foot-dragging over such things as slow payments, mis-selling of PPI, acceptance of falsely self-declared income on mortgage applications and allegedly excessive bank charges. Intensive regulatory activity, checks and balances aimed at preserving the banks has not been enough to save them. For this, the very taxpayers who are poorly served as consumers must now pay.

After a string of CEO departures, the resignation of Sir James Crosby from his post as Deputy Chairman of the FSA, and with the "blame" now lying at the door of the man who was Chancellor through it all, there is no doubt we are in the midst of a leadership crisis.

But what lies in store for us once the "old guard" has gone? Who are the new leaders? Will their leadership improve?

Leadership is a rather nebulous concept. Over centuries, people have literally died trying to define it by reference to specific character traits, sundry personal qualities, types of behaviour, situational responses, functional responsibilities and so on. But regardless of whether or not leadership features all or some of these characteristics, it is ultimately a very complex, contextual, dynamic, inter-personal relationship between the purported leader and those he/she is trying to lead.

In other words, leadership is what the participants in the relationship make it, and we get the leaders we deserve.

But we know this, and we're acting on it. Our decline in faith in our institutions over the past 30 years, and the corresponding surge in political awareness, participation in informal politics, and personalisation of previously mass consumer experiences all reflect our growing individual pragmatism and our confidence in acting on it from the bottom-up. We have learned that great leadership is within our control because we are a fundamental part of that relationship. In essence, we are the leaders.

That is why, when Chris Skinner issued an apology to 98% of bankers for his rather apt criticism of banks, I suggested that in fact they should take his remarks personally. Because we know that as people they are not powerless. We know that great leadership will emerge when the 98% respond to the criticism, bottom-up, by forging a decent relationship with their customers, putting those customers first, ahead of their managers, executives, board directors or shareholders. Only then will we see decent, sustainable profits from the finance services industry.

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