The Parallel Universe of Leadership Events

The World Business Forum is a two-day event; I only made the second afternoon. But even that was enough to almost make my head explode. I knew in theory that there’s an almost insatiable appetite for motivational speakers and leadership tips from boldface names. But seeing the event in real life, at Radio City Music Hall, only served to bring home to me the reality of this whole parallel universe.

Before each session, the lights would dim and the audience — thousands of us — would be subjected to a full-frontal audiovisual assault of extremely noisy ads for various conference sponsors, including Fox Business News. And just in case the message wasn’t hammered home enough, Fox had placed promotional antimacassars on the backs of all the seats, advertising the fact that it broadcasts in HD. Which presumably is the kind of thing which gets conference attendees to watch it.

Then the speakers would come on: a parade of successful men in expensive suits walking purposefully around the stage while talking about vague concepts like Greatness or Leadership or Success. In a sense, I can see why that’s necessary: the audience was so broad that anything more specific would risk being irrelevant to many. But no one ever seemed to credit the audience with any extrapolation skills: the speakers made sure always to do all the necessary extrapolation in advance. Rather than being able to map X’s experience directly across to their own situation, attendees were instead only able to apply the simple principles which X had generated for them from his own experience.

Indeed, the whole thing felt very much like television: the same ultra-low signal-to-noise ratio, the same feel that everything was targeted to the lowest common denominator, the same need to intersperse the serious stuff (Mohammed Yunus and Tony Blair, yesterday afternoon) with a StrongManager™ who was great at peppering his slogans with jokes.

Most depressing of all, the event had television’s astonishing ability to take reasonably smart people and turn them into blabbering morons. Jeremy Siegel came on for a few minutes, to talk about the credit crunch; here’s a verbatim sentence.

We need to substitute illiquid mortgage-backed treasuries with high-quality US treasury bonds known as tier 1 capital to get the banks lending again: if we do that, we will get to a point where we can liquefy these deposits.

This isn’t Jeremy Siegel, Wharton professor; it’s Jeremy Siegel, the "wizard of Wharton", and a man who is utterly unafraid to make a complete fool of himself so long as he gets paid lots of money for his appearance.

Of course, he didn’t make a complete fool of himself, because the audience wasn’t really paying attention to what he was saying. The idea isn’t to write down Siegel’s wizardly words and then puzzle over them later, deciding that they make no sense at all: the idea is to get the impression of having been exposed to Very Important People — people whose Importance presumably will rub off in some manner onto the members of the audience.

For me, the whole experience was like being an atheist in church. The president of Cadillac came on stage, and talked about how "as leaders, our job is to unleash our teams’ strength" — and no one so much as giggled at how ridiculous it all was. One of the organizers of the conference, sitting down to interview Tony Blair, actually asked him: "What are the main three or four characteristics of a successful leader?"

Blair played gamely along: I’m sure he was being paid an astonishing amount of money to do so. But in the pause before his answer, you could feel his frustration and brief twinge of self-loathing. There’s only one correct answer to that question, and it’s the one answer you’re never allowed to give.

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