Whatever else you may want to say about Barack Obama’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize, it is clearly a nod to the enormous power of language as a healer of divisions. Time will tell whether he stops the fighting in Israel, discourages Iran from bomb plans, engages effectively with the Muslim world, heals the sick, and makes the blind see, but at least his rhetoric is one of inclusiveness. “There is not a Red America, or a Blue America, but only One America.”
When we contemplate how broken some of our UK institutions are, such as the Royal Mail, which is threatening to strike again, it is easy to despair. We shake our head at the mess. More post will move to electronic mail as a result of this strike putting post offices out of business. Surely that wasn’t the goal. Darwin wrote that the fittest are those who adapt to change best – not the strongest. You can’t actually accumulate all of the hotels on your private Monopoly board, and relax. The roll of the dice always throws up a new set of variables, and you must react. Change is the constant.
Antonio Perez, the chief executive of Kodak, spoke recently about how he had to downsize the firm by 90 per cent when he came on board. He led townhall sessions around the globe where he asked the troops how many of them had a digital camera, and then how many digital cameras Kodak was producing at the time. Enough said. By reasoning and treating his employees as intelligent people who were aware of market realities, he led the firm through what could have been violent protest.
Most of society wants to group people into categories from which they can’t escape. I am constantly confronted with people who want to write off the bottom third of society. Many of them are card-carrying Labour Party voters. They argue in one breath that no one is taking care of the disadvantaged, and in the other treat them as fodder to be pitied. The most radical thing one can do is to treat all people like human beings – with no distinctions based on where they come from. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea,” said Antoine De Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince.
Obama is right about one thing: we are all just people. The divisions that have historically separated groups of people have all fallen away in this century, and those who would enforce them look ridiculously out of Madame Tussauds. The challenge of the 21st century will be how to grow the size of the economic pie so that everyone gets a reasonable portion rather than arguing over the size of the slice in a diminishing cake. The only way to do that is to unleash the human spirit to create, to build, and to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
Julie Meyer is CEO of Ariadne Capital