Apocalypse! Now what? US legislator belatedly sues big banks.

“What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin?”

Anyone recognise this quote from Colonel Kurtz, the infamous creation of Marlon Brando in the brilliant but ill-fated Vietnam epic? The film could so easily be a parable for these crazy times?.

Remember the film and you’ll doubtless recall the use of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries which accompanied the ironic arrival of the flying US cavalry. Well, on the morning when the US authorities announce their intention to sue 17 major banks including Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, RBS and HSBC  for losses on mortgage-backed investments that cost taxpayers around the world tens of billions of dollars, the soundtrack is more likely to be the collective sound of dropping jaws. The fear will be that their rear-guard action surely threatens to plunge world economies into recession again accompanied by a double-dip into the tax payer’s pockets.

The question on everyone’s lips is, why didn’t the cavalry prevent the problem in the first place, especially as it’s clearly so wide-reaching? And what were the auditors doing?

As exponents of values-led-leadership and culture development, however, our take on the debacle implies greater cause for concern. We know a bit about the industry and as we’ve stated many times in the past, the problem is systemic. To use an appropriate metaphor, it’s transferred from the high profile rats to the fleas. It is a reflection of the relentless focus on “shareholders uber alles”, short termism and the demise of relationship development as well as a twisted notion of what exactly a performance culture actually is.

As Martin Sheen’s central character, Captain WIllard states:

“Saigon … shit….I’m still only in Saigon … each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter”.

At the professional services event we facilitated for the MPF in London, this year, we laboured the point that brand and reputation are synonymous. But the bulk of brand management must come from within. No point wasting effort on external brand assassins (as Colonel Kurtz alludes), focus instead on identifying and converting the internal stakeholders and developing brand champions from within who will then create an authentic, values-base culture given the right encouragement and support.

Never has the banking sector needed to heed those words more. And the regulators and auditors would do well to listen too.

The other famous character in the film was cavalry leader Lt Kilgore best known for his shirtless beach scene, of course:

” You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like … victory.

Someday this war’s gonna end.”

The irony works on several levels.

The lingering advice, however, is to ignore the cavalry and the fighting, forget commanding and controlling and to start leading by addressing the core cultural issues within your sphere of influence at source, before it’s too late.

Having opened with Kurtz, its fitting to close with him:

“We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write “f***” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”

If anyone would like a copy of our paper on values-based brand management, with or without a professional services slant, do get in touch and we’ll be glad to help.


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