Sunday, 1 July 2012

Well Grounded

It has been a long, hot day and I am sitting in an airplane on the tarmac at Geneva airport, waiting to fly back to the UK.  We’ve just been told that our flight to Heathrow will be delayed for at least half an hour, due to air traffic control in Brussels needing to “find us a suitable slot”.  The flight has been scheduled for months, so it’s a frustrating excuse.  I do find the centralised control of Europe by shadowy people in Brussels at times amusing (I still fail to understand why human hair in the form of L-cysteine, used as a dough conditioner in industrially produced baked goods, has been classified as a food ), but, when I am tired and want to get home, it is easy to find dictates from afar unnecessarily restrictive.  There are few things more unpleasant than feeling helpless to impact a situation and being at the mercy of the whims of others.  To make matters worse, after a day of sitting in a small room full of increasingly hot electronic equipment, where the temperature was over 40 degrees, I am sitting in the first row of the “cheap seats” and the passengers in First have been given hot towels and cool drinks to help soothe them.  Us lesser (or at least more frugal) mortals can only sit and watch.

Hmmm – we are soon to take off and the stewardess has seen fit to draw the curtain between “Us and Them”; there is a small strip of pleated material like the ruched pelmet of a boudoir’s bed or a very short kilt-style gym skirt, which is attached by Velcro to the ceiling and the rear of the seat immediately in front of me, concealing our view of the “First Class Cabin” in front.  It is a while since I have been made to feel that I must be kept behind the Green Baize Door (where only servants should be found) or below The Salt (and hence beneath the concern of the lords and ladies).  It reminds me slightly of when I was a young teenager.  My father worked in Hong Kong, but our family, being of British origin, was allowed a paid trip back to the UK once a year to see family and friends.  Because of his status, my father automatically travelled First Class, as did my mother and younger sisters, but, being a teenager, I had to fly Economy.  Between you and me, I had much more fun than the rest of my family (but less sleep).  It was in the days when the flight to Hong Kong really was a long haul – the first time I did it it took over twelve hours and we had three stops en route to refuel.  That’s plenty of time to get to know others on the plane and most times we ended up having a marvellous impromptu party.

Being “privileged” is not always a privilege.  My sisters hated the stuffy confines of First where they were expected to be seen but not heard.  When you are “on show” there are often expectations on you and how you should behave and these can prevent you from enjoying life.  In Edwardian times upper class parents seldom spent time with their children (their offspring were banished to the Nursery with Nanny) and hence many parents missed out on the joy of seeing their family learn and grow.  Even today, working or wealthy parents are often too busy to be able to spend time with their children.  I am sitting next to a delightful teaching assistant who works at an international boarding school in Switzerland.  Fees at the school are over £60,000 per annum and the children come from around the globe.  Undoubtedly, amongst the children friendships will be forged that will last a lifetime and those fortunate kids will have a global network to pull upon should the need ever arise.  However, those benefits have been gained at the loss of other things – the school’s half term break was only two days long and hence the last time both my neighbour and most of the pupils have been home and spent time with their families was in April.  That’s a long time ago.

Before I progress with this post, let me stress that I have no axe to grind against the affluent and the successful – in fact quite the reverse.  People with deeper pockets than I have helped me and many others to found successful businesses, to the benefit of numerous parties, and much of the philanthropic work that I have had the privilege of being involved with could not have happened without generous sponsors and wealthy individuals with vision.   My concern stems from the at times out-dated assumption that people want what they have always been given.  We live in a socially enabled world where, courtesy of Technology, there are fewer boundaries and hence greater opportunities for collaboration, resulting in mutual benefit.  I am neither a conservative traditionalist nor an anarchist, but I do appreciate that the world is changing and success will be dependent on people grasping the new opportunities available and adapting.   Technology clearly brings benefits – some less obvious than others. Collaborative sites such as Wikipedia have enabled the enhanced access and sharing of knowledge, the internet has also increased people’s ability to learn swiftly – for example, by playing with and learning from peers of similar calibre, gamers, such as chess players, can reach high standards faster than through the conventional master pupil teaching approaches.  The people individuals communicate with and play with online come from all strata of society – research has shown that 42% of professional women in the UK are avid players of games on Facebook – the boundaries of class are being broken as Technology unites like minded and skilled players on sites such as Words with Friends, regardless of income, race, sex or creed.

It would be foolish for ambitious individuals to rely solely on horizontal networks going forward.  Look at the impact social networking has had on world events and sentiment, through viral communications, including the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement.  However, we should also note that in many incidents, where viral communicating has occurred, desired outcomes have not been achieved (the election of the newly appointed Egyptian president was perhaps not the candidate most protesters had in mind when they stood demonstrating in Tahrir Square and as they saw their colleagues being shot on the Qasr al-Aini Bridge in Cairo and the Occupy Movement has yet to provide a compelling philosophy, cohesive ideology or articulated strategy for addressing the economic issues confronting the world).  Direction and leadership are required as well as the ability to spread and share ideas and information.

Those with the means, integrity and the ability to lead need to step forward, rather than remaining concealed “behind the curtain”.  The current interest-rate fixing scandal is a case in point.  Not every banker is evil, indeed the majority of people who work in Financial Services are not, but to date a dangerous few have been able to get away with highly inappropriate and probably illegal conduct. Libor (the London Inter Bank Offered Rate) has a knock on effect on a wide section of the community.  Technology enabled a rotten, but small, number of traders to rig prices to suit their own ends and their emails make offensive reading.  Where was the required leadership and control?  Marcus Agius, the Chairman of Barclay’s resignation (under pressure from shareholders and the Media) is clearly a reaction to appease after the event.  The current situation reminds me slightly of the Barings scandal in 1994, when Nick Leeson was able to take advantage of the system because the “leaders” above him did not understand or even try to comprehend what was going on.  True leaders are informed and in touch with people, as well as being effective communicators.  I want a pilot who understands the dashboard in front of him/her, is in two-way contact with air traffic control, remains alert to their environment and acts appropriately according to the circumstances.  And with that, I must sign off, as we have been given the all-clear to taxi down the runway. May your week ahead enable you to achieve new heights...

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