With the appointment of the nice and safe Antony Jenkins as chief executive of Barclays and the dismissal of the brilliant but flawed Bob Diamond, Barclays has joined the long line of companies, institutions and countries that are making the shift from charismatic, headline-grabbing, show-stopping leadership to safe, understated, technocratic management.
When you hear that someone has been appointed because he's "a safe pair of hands" it's almost impossible not to extrapolate. You can't help thinking that he probably wears very dull underpants, is a bit of a drag at dinner parties and sadly disappointing in bed. Put these thoughts to one side because dull is the new exciting. We've all had to learn the hard way what the opposite of a safe pair of hands is: it's the butterfingers of incompetence, the sticky fingers of corruption, the wandering hands of Berlusconi and the grasping hands of bonus bingers.
The fashion in leadership is shifting. In business there are more books written about leadership than on any other topic (if you find yourself buying the book you're unlikely to be the leader). There are three classic models of leadership: the first is "autocratic leadership" where the leader manages to get somewhere but doesn't take people with them, for example Margaret Thatcher. Then there is "charismatic leadership" where the leader takes everyone with him but doesn't actually get anywhere, Tony Blair being a good example. Finally there's the "loss leader" where the leader doesn't get anywhere and doesn't take anybody with them, Gordon Brown being the finest example. Very rarely do you get a leader that gets somewhere and manages to take all the people with them, maybe Moses but after that I'm struggling.
Of course leadership is only talked about when it is most needed and that is in time of crisis. We didn't mind Winston Churchill during the big crisis but we were much happier with Clement Attlee when it was all over. You don't hear much about the leadership of businesses and countries that aren't in crisis like John Lewis or Finland. That's because they have aligned, motivated and focused people who know exactly what they're doing and are getting on with it. But if the talk is about leadership then there's always a crisis.
In the big euro crisis, Italy and Greece have already decided to abandon the charismatic leadership model for safe bureaucrats. Correction: Germany has decided that Italy and Greece should abandon the charismatic model which might seem to suggest that there is a correlation between dullness and fiscal rectitude. However, that doesn't always stack up. For example, François Hollande promised to be dull personally but politically radical. This got him elected but now he seems to be genuinely dull through and through. No one would ever accuse Ken Livingstone of being exciting but he was genuinely radical. Boris Johnson? He's got the charisma but are his hands safe? Would you want his fingers anywhere near the nuclear button, or your partner's buttons? Leadership quality is a very slippery beast to pin down. Don't forget that some of the biggest disasters politically and economically have come from the dullest people.
The truth is we are in dull times. There isn't enough money or appetite for flamboyance. Why should our leaders have tropical holidays while we're having staycations? We want leaders who look as though they are in mourning for our lost standard of living. And perhaps in a hundred years time when the recession is over and we're roaring ahead again, then the public might splash out on some expensive flashy leaders who promise to keep the good times rolling on forever. But not now, thank you.
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