In the run-up to his tardy efforts to partially make good on the BHS pensions scandal, Sir Philip Green gave every indication that he was someone who needed to be led, rather than a man who was prepared to take a decisive lead in resolving the crisis.
It took the combined strength of numerous editorials in the national press and interventions by a Parliamentary committee to force Green to set about plugging the yawning gap in the defunct high-street chain’s pension pot. The overall impression was that Green had to be dragged kicking and screaming to make the £363m financial settlement – a sum that’s still £200m short of the full deficit.
It hasn’t exactly rehabilitated him, either. Work and Pensions Select Committee chair Frank Field – Green’s most dogged pursuer – said in the wake of the tycoon’s action that the payout “doesn’t wipe the stains from his reputation clean”, and that the scandal’s outcome “sends out a very powerful message: You might try to sell a business. You might try to flog it off on the cheap because you don’t want to deal with the pension deficit, but the pension regulator said we’ll come after you and we’ll make you pay big money in order to safeguard the interests of pensioners”.
So what does this say about Green’s attitude to leadership? Why, with the livelihoods of thousands of employees at stake, was Green prepared to risk his reputation not only in the sale of BHS, but in his handling of the aftermath?
According to Kate Cooper – head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management – Green’s demeanour throughout the crisis is symptomatic of the state of the business at issue, the stage he has reached in his career, and generational factors. “This is very much a contrast to Uber chief Travis Kalanick’s problem,” she says. “Following his recent outburst at one of his firm’s drivers, Kalanick has realised that he’s running a business where what he does matters, and he has to keep people onboard. But in Green’s case, the business is defunct, so he wasn’t worrying about the impact of his decisions on his staff, or the effect of his actions.
“Perhaps to some extent Green hasn’t been very well advised, because Kalanick has clearly been urged to eat humble pie by a wise associate who’s said: ‘You can’t behave like this – you’re creating an industry.’ Whereas Green is not from a generation that would take that kind of reputational advice very seriously. For him, resolving the BHS fallout came down very much to an argument over costs.”
Cooper adds: “Kalanick realised that the potential loss, or damage, to his reputation from his outburst was potentially quite significant, but in Green’s mind, reputation was a far less vital consideration. This difference in how they’ve appreciated their own actions could be a feature of the respective points they’ve got to in their careers, it could be about their general attitudes – but obviously, there’s a big generational gulf here, too.”

For further thoughts on taking ownership of actions and decisions, check out this article from The Institute’s learning materials

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