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Bread, circuses...and a little bit of monkey business (leadership and corporate history).

Bread, circuses...and a little bit of monkey business (leadership and corporate history)

With all the impudent wit for which he is famous, US journalist and critic of American life Henry Louis Mencken once said that democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.

He made the comment many years before the people of UK town Hartlepool, famously said to have hanged a monkey during the Napoleonic wars because they thought it was a French spy, actually elected a monkey to the £53,000 a year job of town mayor.

H’Angus, also known as Stuart Drummond, then mascot of the town’s football team, won the mayoralty in 2002 on a campaign slogan of ‘free bananas for schoolchildren’. Once in office, of course, he quickly abandoned the monkey costume, which he said he had used for ‘purely promotional purposes’ and adopted a range of more conventional policies. He performed them sufficiently well to gain re-election in 2005, and remains in office today.

Stuart Drummond’s success illustrates how people can assimilate the culture of a particular sphere and work within it. Harvard Business Review (January 2009) presents an equally colourful example of the same phenomenon – Chuck Wagner, ringmaster at Ringling Bros and Barnham & Bailey Circus.

The article points out that the role of ringmaster has traditionally gone to someone brought up in the circus, who was either the circus owner or head trainer of the equestrian team. Wagner’s background, in contrast, is in musical theatre. Wagner argues that he must be both the standard-bearer of his company’s revered past and the visible part of its reinvention.

Like Ringling Bros and Barnham & Bailey Circus, the Indian conglomerate Tata is still strongly influenced by its historical roots. Sivakumar (in Journal of Business Ethics, Dec 2008 Part I) relates how Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, who died in 1904, built the company on the principles of ‘considering the interests of shareholders as our own, and the health and welfare of the employees – the sure foundation of our prosperity’.

Two-thirds of the equity of Tata Sons, the Tata group’s promoter company, is held by philanthropic trusts which have created national institutions in science and technology, medical research, social studies and the performing arts. The trusts also help non-governmental organizations in the areas of education and health care. Tata companies seek to extend their social-welfare activities further – to the communities in which their main plants are located. The combined development-related spending of the trusts and companies amounts to around 4% of the group’s net profits.

Like Wagner at Ringling Bros and Barnham & Bailey Circus, Cisco chairman and chief executive John Chambers is personally identified with major organizational change. McGirk (in Fast Company magazine, Dec 2008-Jan 2009) describes how the company, a major manufacturer of electronic network components like routers and switches, is thriving despite the economic downturn because of the demand for cheap and easy video.

Chambers has restructured the company to match the modern importance of networking. A network of councils and boards is empowered to launch new business, while financial incentives also encourage co-operation. Leaders who once competed for power and resources are now sharing responsibility for each other’s success.

Chambers has been named one of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’, among Barron’s ‘World’s Best CEOs’ and one of Business Week’s ‘Top 25 Executives Worldwide’. During his past 13 years at the helm of Cisco, the company has been in Fortune’s ‘America’s Most Admired Company’ list seven times. Now that really is some ringmaster!