Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Business Man for All Seasons

Henry had a problem. As CEO of a family run conglomerate that was one of the most powerful on the planet, he was not answerable to external shareholders and with the resources at his disposal (that included an effective private paramilitary force) he had the had the power to achieve just about anything he wanted by one means or another. He had a highly autocratic management style, but like many CEO's of similar style, had a fiercely loyal cadre of followers. Certainly not a man to be crossed.
But there was one thing he desperately craved that he couldn't have. Educated in one of the UK's finest Public Schools his closest friend and confidante from those days, Thomas, had been the son of an Archbishop well known for his outspoken views on such issues as poverty and social justice and Tom had a similar vein of tenacity. Despising one another on sight, and despite coming from very different worlds the two boys struck up a friendship and mutual respect that had endured over the years, as Henry eventually took over the conglomerate and Tom followed his father's calling through dedicating his life to working with the underprivileged and eventually rising to become one of the most respected leaders in Western Europe, renowned for his clear and uncompromising views on social justice.
Henry and Tom would often meet and debate at length their different perspectives - and while they shared a bond of friendship and respect for one another, their views fiercely clashed. Through direct and indirect control, Henry's business interests spanned healthcare, property, food production, armaments, financial services, liquor, gaming and other sectors, and he had a simple and Darwinian view that it was his right to do whatever he pleased to maximize profits regardless of the consequences. On the other hand Tom constantly argued from the perspective that there were absolute standards of right and wrong, and that Henry must be accountable for his actions.
Over the years, despite their friendship, this rift began to widen as Henry, increasingly emboldened by his ability to use fair means and foul to achieve his objectives, began to do more and more that Tom believed was across the line, and Tom began to build a reputation for being a person willing to speak out against Henry's approaches. This infuriated Henry, who privately had the worry that Tom had a point, and desperately wanted to gain his approval. Things became very tense.
Matters came to a head when a long and convoluted series of business deals Henry had been working on for years finally fell into place. Over the years he had used his influence and money - and the occasional assassination, military coup or civil war - to give his operations favorable positions in a number of countries and using this, his business interests and those he controlled covertly plus a series of complex financial transactions he now had effective supply and pricing control across enough key sectors of the economy that he was effectively an undeclared dictator.
Tom had learned of these plans through concerned contacts in Henry's organization and, knowing his friend as he did, was appalled at the likely consequences as Henry now had the power to cause mayhem and great suffering to many in society. He began a vocal campaign to rouse politicians and the public to be aware of Henry's plans and their evil intent.
The news broke as Henry was meeting with his inner circle of his most trusted senior executives at his retreat in the English countryside. Throwing the papers across the boardroom table in rage he shouted to his team "How long do I have to put up with this interference! How can I shut him up for good?"
One of his team quietly slipped out of the room. Taking a small encrypted mobile phone from his pocket he punched a speed dial number and it was answered immediately."Implement Silver Arrow" was all he said, and returned to the conference.
At 8pm that night as Thomas was leading his weekly church service for the homeless in a former cinema in the city's notorious red light district, two masked gunmen entered from a side door, each emptied a full magazine of 9mm rounds from their machine pistols into the startled Thomas, and disappeared while the congregation stood aghast at Thomas's lifeless body draped across the lecturn, blood slowly dripping from his outstretched hand.
On course this story is not a modern one but one based on fact, and often referred to in literature, of the relationship between King Henry II of England and Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury. "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest" (meddlesome and troublesome are also words that have been used) was his cry of frustration, picked up by his knights, and Thomas was silenced for good.
The scenario is played out in the corporate world on a daily basis. Human nature is such that there will always be those whose ambition and self-focus needs to have boundaries, or they will quickly cross the line to the detriment of others. Whether described as corporate greed, personal ambition or any other label there is constant pressure to play loose and fast and there is the counterbalancing reaction by those who resist this - typically not for their own benefit. Have you ever thought, for example, why bank regulators exist? The answer is simple - because banks exist. I'm not taking a pot shot at banks - every industry has elements of the same.
The only thing that has changed is that Henry II had his knights to do the dirty work for him without having scruples. Today, that's what the HR department is for.

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