Sunday, 10 February 2013

Horse Play

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

I am struck by the fact that a man famous for voicing his need for a horse, when “His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights” (Richard III, William Shakespeare), has been confirmed as the most likely identity for a body buried in a car park in Leicester, UK  At the same time horses in various guises (burgers, lasagne, pies, etc…) seem to have been given to many people who do not want them…well at least not in that form.  You couldn’t make it up! 

Horse & rider at San Bartolome de Pinares, photograph by Daniel Ochoa de Olza, 
Guardian Eyewitness series January 2012
There are numerous lessons for the workplace that can be gleaned from both pieces of news.  Here are five for starters (perhaps an unfortunate choice of phrase):   

1    It’s easy to damage a brand.  The 15th century was a turbulent time, fraught with political and civil unrest.  However, Richard III was a popular monarch; according to David Grummit, a War of the Roses specialist based at the University of Kent, he was "regarded by most of his contemporaries, especially during the 1470s and early '80s, as a paragon of chivalric virtue and an accomplished soldier... in death, Richard was doing nothing more than he had done for most of his life." Despite being unseated from his horse and losing his protective headgear and coronet, he bravely remained fighting on foot, even after being deserted by a number of his followers.  He became the last Plantagenet monarch of England when he died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.  As is usual when a new order commences, the arriving dynasty, in this case the Tudors, need to cement public approval to ensure their future.  Artists, eager to gain patronage and secure their own safety, often stress the benefits of the “new regime”, denigrating the former.  Shakespeare’s demonic depiction of Richard III, as a nephew-killing and physically deformed man, can be considered a powerful piece of propaganda on behalf of the Tudors ; this would have helped the playwright to receive a warm reception with Elizabeth I and her court.  Research into the unearthed body shows that the King neither had a hump nor a withered arm, so the pictures made of him during his lifetime were probably more accurate than perhaps some had thought.  

Richard III circa 1480
There is an interesting book I read as a teenager, called “The Daughter of Time”, written by Josephine Tey (the nom de plume of a respected detective story writer from the middle of the last century, Elizabeth MacIntosh).  The book presents evidence that seems to vindicate Richard III of the murder of his nephews – in the 1950’s this book helped inspire the creation of the Fellowship of the White Boar, an international  society dedicated to clearing Richard’s name.  The organisation was renamed The Richard III Society and has, since the mid fifties, fiercely campaigned to shift public perception of the potentially maligned monarch – it was part of the collaborative group of organisations responsible for the research into the corpse in the car park – along with the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council.  Despite the pro-Richard campaigners, public imagination over the centuries has been captivated by the image of the deformed, wicked uncle who murdered his own nephews in the pursuit of personal ambition – the Tudors gave Richard a compelling, but not attractive, brand. 

As a side note, in my experience it is common practice for a new leader to blame the old regime for issues he/she is trying to overcome (as is so often demonstrated in politics as well as business).  The responsibility for economic woes and tough decisions is often laid on those who came before.

Today, in the horse meat scandal, leading retailers and manufacturers are looking for culprits (other than themselves) and taking expensive measures to protect against the adverse impact of being seen to have lied to their customers/the public, and for not having been in control of produce – Findus plans legal action against its suppliers (despite the obvious damage to their corporate brand, I must confess to smiling at the joke doing the rounds on Twitter about how "staying in with a hot Italian stallion" sounds cooler than "heating up a ready-meal lasagne"); Tesco’s sales losses, due to the crisis, are anticipated to be in excess of £1 million; to mitigate further damage, the retailer has harnessed the power of various media channels to circulate a statement aimed at reassuring customers that it is taking the issue seriously.  Individuals and organisations need to be aware of how they are perceived, both internally and externally, and be seen to be responsive. 

2    Technology is significant.  It would have been impossible to ascertain the identity of either the body or the ingredients of suspect processed food without DNA testing (or "DN Neigh" as Baron Prescott tweeted).  The corpse’s DNA was a close match to that of a known descendant of the King's sister and even miniscule amounts of horse meat can been identified in various products – although in some instances it is clear that no meat other than horse was used in the so-called “beef” processed meals.  Both stories have become international phenomena, in part due to the numerous websites, blogs and social media commentaries.  Without the use of modern technology, neither incident would have become news.  Increasingly, leaders will need to consider the impact of technology, to ensure competitive advantage as well as its ability to enable rapid and effective communication (both planned and unplanned).

3    Evidence based decisions are required to support proposals.  Researchers at the University of Leicester undertook extensive analysis to determine the identity of the corpse!   The curvature of the spine and the slender frame indicate a physique similar to that described by the contemporaries of King Richard III.  Forensic knowledge was used to determine the cause of death – almost certainly a severe blow to the head with a sharp object, that sliced through the skull, this would be consistent with battle wounds and accounts of the King’s demise.  Regrettably, more and more evidence is coming to light in the “horse meat scandal”, which seems to indicate that inappropriately described ingredients have been used in processed food that has been distributed right across Europe (and that it might have links to known criminal rings, who arbitraged the cheap price of horse meat in Romania against Western European markets, after a change in legislation in Romania resulted in large quantities of horses being killed and the price dropping).  To avoid inappropriate actions and to enable better decisions to be made, organisations need to use all the facts and information available to them to support the decision making process.

4    Honesty is crucial Consumers trust food producers to provide the product as described on its packaging.  Although horse meat is popular as a food in many countries (notably not the UK), that does not excuse retailers and food manufacturers from passing off equine produce as minced beef.  Misled members of the public will avoid producers and retailers whom they know have lied to them.   King Richard III was viewed with mistrust by a number of his subjects, which contributed to his demise -

At exactly the same time as the academics were breaking the news to the press about their extraordinary discoveries, another story was unfolding: that of the former UK MP, Chris Huhne, who unexpectedly plead guilty to perverting the course of justice.  Huhne’s persistent lying and willingness to pass the blame for his actions onto others has done much greater harm to his reputation than the fact that he was caught speeding.  He would have been well advised to have heeded Shakespeare’s words in the play, Richard III

                “An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told”.

In these days of Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest and Facebook, word spreads as fast as people can hit the share button and, as former RBS traders and other banks now know, ill advised words and actions are easily uncovered.  Authenticity and honesty are prerequisites of good leaders and employees.
5    People are emotional as well as rational.  As the success and national support of the dressage teams in the Olympics last year testify, the UK is a nation of horse lovers with strong equestrian roots.  Horse meat is not dangerous to eat (unless the animal has been treated with drugs, such as “Bute”, which is potentially harmful to humans); however, many people are repelled at the thought of horses being used as a food.  An innate repugnance at consuming an animal that is loved and admired, combined with a dislike of being deceived (especially by big businesses that are seen as having a huge influence over our lives) results in a powerful combination, inflaming public anger and distrust (the media fanning of the blaze with emotive writing only serves to intensify this reaction).  It is clear that Richard III inspired and still stirs up strong emotions in people.  Some of his defenders are almost evangelical and his enemies clearly loathed him - there is evidence that Richard’s body was stabbed and mutilated after his death (e.g. puncture wounds to his buttocks) – this was probably to humiliate his corpse and as an act of retribution.  Similar to the events surrounding Gaddafi’s death in Libya, where his death was slow and his battered body was paraded through the streets, it appears that the mob took advantage of his capture to vent their frustration and anger.    A leader should never underestimate the power of emotions.  To inspire people to action, you need to engage on an emotional level as well as presenting a compelling, well reasoned vision.


  1. Meaty blog as ever, love the parallels between past and present, the enduring lessons across centuries for leadership and organisations, all told with wit and consummate storytelling. Thanks Kate!

  2. Nice blog - well written and very topical. Hope all is well with you.
    All the best,