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Dining @ Davos

27 January 2005
Evening falls on Davos, and roughly two and a half thousand people – the vast majority of which have paid up to $50,000 for the pleasure – make tracks through the snow for their dinner dates…all over the picture postcard town, hundreds of dinner tables have been prepared, mostly hosted by welcoming corporate and government sponsors. For those failing to secure an invitation (or perhaps avoiding them), also available are twenty or so dinner-and-listen meals organised by WEF around particular topics, for which diners pay an extra toll. My host for the evening is Accenture (see yesterday’s blog) at the Hotel Seehof. The buzz around the table is Tony Blair’s speech, where he reiterated his commitment to addressing African poverty and climate change, and to holding the G8 to account for its leadership in these and other challenges. Most of the assembled co-diners are enthusiastic about the speech, a case of ‘risk-taking leadership’ as one person declares…the tone deepens an octave or so when several of us signal a sense of dis-ease with the ease of commitment and its commensurate lack of accountability, an ambivalence towards this leadership that we have seen played out at war and at home…why these two themes, one person asks, tucking into his fried scallops, after all, he could have picked something easier…it’s a space no other political leader has taken, says another, maybe he is preparing for his next job…a sort of ‘real time cv’… …the discussion broadens to the matter of leadership…take one sheet of blank paper, one writing implement, preferably something you can suck without getting sick…then list ten leaders who fulfil the criteria of having real structural power, and being amazing (in a positive sense) in your opinion…no, Mandela does not count, no real power now, and he is largely known for what he did when he had little structural power…and forget the Dalai Lama too…one person suggests Thatcher…but stick with it until the shadows deepen and you are ready for bed… …I ask, is our current democratic model compatible with addressing deeply rooted, long term challenges like poverty and climate change…invoking Churchill’s witty comment that all that endears one to the model is that it is better than the others does not really cut the mustard given the scale of scarcity for many in the face of plenty for the few…we do now want New York taxi drivers as day traders determining the future of our business community, or even the suited fund managers who treat money management more like a beauty contest than the serious matter of investing other people’s money to secure their future livelihood…so why do we want political leaders who are increasingly short-termist in their outlook, driven by the very incentives that we have designed to protect us from their abuse of power…what would be a model of ‘open democracy’ more likel to deliver the goods…general disquiet descends across the table…the roast deer arrives, together with flamboyant veggie dish. …speed and accountability are not compatible, says the South African diner, highlighting the damaging effects of a wired (and soon wireless?) world on reflection, engagement and accountability…perspective is the essence of good leadership…I suggest that long termism was historically rooted in religion and family, and that both have deteriorated…we have a need for new cultures of long-termism required to embed a culture of accountability…the gentleman from Nestle offers up his company as an example of one that takes a long term view…another CEO, this one from a water company, is not so sanguine, “the whole model is broken”, he declares, “we have to replace the lot”. The conversation fuses out when latecomers come into the wood panelled room, for some one suspects thankfully…”think of another topic”, says one person jovially…my mind goes blank. Moving swiftly through football, we reach the subject of Russia (yup, there is a link)…”its getting better now”, says a world weary executive, “we know who is in power, and how they are likely to exercise it…business risks are down, and the oligarchs want peace and stability”…I listen for a while…time to go…I thank my hosts for a fascinating evening, and slither my way down the icy lanes to my hotel and bed.

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