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 In this week’s bulletin, Charlie shares his thoughts on the recent NatWest scandal and discusses how senior managers should handle a crisis.
I have been closely following the Coutts, NatWest, and Dame Alison Rose crisis over the last few days, contemplating the lessons we can learn from it. Crisis professionals can teach senior managers how to manage a crisis through exercises and training, but it appears that two fundamental behaviours are consistently causing undoing for senior managers, politicians, and public figures – arrogance and lying.

Boris Johnson had to resign as Prime Minister, not because of the original sin of attending lockdown parties (many other politicians and people violated guidance with gatherings), it was the lying about attending the parties that became his undoing. Similarly, in the NatWest case, it was not lying that undid Dame Alison Rose, but rather, arrogance in the way she handled the situation.

Rising to be a senior leader in a large organisation is hard, and I suspect you need a certain amount of self-belief and arrogance to climb the slippery pole. There aren’t many business books recommending Gandhi’s style of leadership – non-violent resistance, civil disobedience, moral persuasion, and passive resistance – to reach the top. As a woman, Dame Alison Rose probably had to work doubly hard to prove herself, and her background in banking with RBS might have contributed to her ‘self-belief.’

There are two areas where I observed arrogance manifesting itself in this incident:

First, in choosing Nigel Farage as a victim of de-banking. Except for Brexiteers, he is not a well-liked figure, so perhaps they thought he would be an easy target and they would have public and politicians’ support in closing his account. I read a Times article on Nigel Farage that said that he will go down in history as the most important UK politician since Margaret Thatcher, so perhaps he was not a good person to pick on. Dame Alison Rose brought the idea of the bank promoting the progressive agenda or ‘woke’ issues, so picking Nigel Farage, with his overtones of racism, might have seemed suitable for this agenda. However, if you are taking the moral high ground, be careful who you choose as your victim, as they may not accept your agenda passively and could bite back.

Secondly, in Dame Alison Rose briefing a BBC journalist about Nigel Farage not having enough money in his account to maintain his Coutts account. One of the oldest principles in banking is protecting the privacy and confidentiality of customers. Briefing a journalist about the private financial affairs of a customer is a blatant breach of this code. While a junior manager who carried out such an action would have been summarily sacked, Dame Alison Rose felt it was acceptable for her to do so, and the bank’s board supported her decision to stay on in her job. Making this worse, the reason she told the journalist was not true; it was for his political views that Nigel Farage lost his account.

Perhaps Dame Alison Rose will join the list of people who have contributed to making crises worse by their comments and behaviour, such as Tony Hayward of BP, who famously said ‘I want my life back’ and Oscar Munoz of United Airlines, who called the dragging of a passenger from one of his planes by security guards a ‘systems failure’. These figures have contributed to making crises worse by their comments and behaviour.

In training senior managers in crisis management, the opening advice should emphasise not lying and not being arrogant. This should be self-evident, but perhaps we have to keep emphasising it as a reminder for them to consider their actions and thoughts before implementing them.
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