René's Blog

Rene brings vast knowledge and experience from around the world.


Dec 6


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" is the prescient opening line of the famous Charles Dickens’ historical novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, first published in 1889. It’s set in London and Paris during 1775-1792, as raging economic and political unrest lead directly to the American and French Revolutions.

The huge desire for nationalism is rearing its head again, but this time on a global basis. The two cities of London and Paris have again both been rocked by the tidal wave of popular political movements - the Brexit vote that devastated most Londoners has been closely followed by the astonishing triumph of Donald Trump in the USA. Paris was as rocked and shaken as much as London, and is now fraught with its upcoming presidential elections which have already started to play out to a similar populist and nationalistic furore.

In the same breath, one of the standard bearers of 20th century nationalism, Fidel Castro, leaves the stage that he strode so massively on for well over half a century. From a very personal point of view, like so many of my generation, Castro was an all-conquering hero to us in our youth. He passed away as one of the most divisive modern-day national leaders.

There was always something incredibly romantic about Castro, and even more so about his unbelievably photogenic partner in the revolution, the Argentinian, Che Guevara. The audacity of their resistance against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, leading to his eventual overthrow in 1959, is the stuff of heroes and legend.

The two of them became potent symbols of resistance and liberty. Many of us, consequently, and far too readily, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to some of the horror stories of intimidation and human rights abuses that were taking place against his own people in Cuba. Not to mention its near perfect isolation from the outside world.

I visited Cuba to see for myself for the first time in the late 90’s. The neat and tidy, but rather plastic tourist resorts of Varadero were a pleasant front window. But just a bit further into the interior, there is a much more macabre and dark backdrop of poverty, restrictions on freedom, false promises, and abject racism for all to experience. I left despising all of it. And Havana, another of our ‘worst of times’ cities, was the most brutal experience of all.

At first sight, Old Havana with its charming but decrepit 16th century Spanish colonial architecture, was still rather attractive, but nothing much appeared to be working. 2.1 million people live crammed together in Havana. There were many distasteful experiences, but nothing more crushing than far too many beautiful young black girls ready to trade their young bodies for cash and favour. This has bred a seedy sexual tourism industry that attracts many Europeans to this island of mesmerizing salsa music, the rhythmical exotic dancing and authentic bonhomie.

We now know that the long-held American Dream is now in need of redefining for a new generation. But the Cuban dream which was so fixated on being all the things the American dream clearly ignored, now also needs urgent recalibrating.


This brings me to my fourth city, Banjul – the city of my birth, in Africa’s smallest and quite possibly, least strategic country, The Gambia. With a population of only 1.9 million people, it is surrounded on three sides (apart from the stunning Atlantic coast strip) by our bigger brother nation, Senegal. We have a shared heritage and also still share culture, tradition, language, faith, cuisine and so much more, but do hardly anything together!

Banjul has quite a few parallels with Havana. The Portuguese came in 1455, and the famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama, gave his name to The Gambia. It became a British Protectorate in 1894 after many years of running battles between the French and British.

It too has a decrepit capital in Banjul, that is full to overflowing with far too many of its facilities broken and never repaired after the British left at independence in 1965.

Gambia has had an archetypal African ‘strongman’ in charge since he staged a bloodless military coup in 1991. The former army lieutenant, Yahya Jammeh, had become president at the age of 29. He had all the ignominious traits of those who never expect to leave high office in Africa – a terrible and unforgiving approach to human rights, repression of any opposition and ongoing intimidation of the free press. All leading to an urgent desire for isolation from prying eyes.

December 1st marked the 5th election that President Jammeh would surely win. With so much of the state’s apparatus under his direct control, he was effectively unbeatable. He’s a wily and savvy campaigner, and left nothing to chance. He had successfully split and divided the nation to his eternal advantage.

Any opposition leader who looked in anyway capable of leading any sizeable following was usually dispatched on some drummed up charge, or strangely disappeared; some had lost their lives in detention. Just to make sure he won as usual, Ousainou Darboe, the leader of the main opposition, the United Democratic Party (UDP), was jailed in August 2016, after a farcical trial, taking him out of the way prior to the elections on December 1st.

It feels like “the worst of times” again, in all of the cities I’ve mentioned.

So back to Post-Brexit London. Spirits have not yet recovered since the momentous and shocking referendum vote on membership of the European Union. Followed by the seismic results of the US election, this has made most ‘pause and reflect’ on “what did we miss?” And so much was missed, from the economic divide allegedly fostered by the effects of globalisation to the growing discomfort with immigration.

It’s in times of adversity that we look for and demand inspirational leadership. However, it feels like we are at an all-time low, when it comes to the strong political global leaders who will have the vision and energy to heal some of the growing and worrying divides.

With all this weighing heavily on my mind, I attended a very special breakfast in London organised by the Leadership Council at the swish and famous central London eatery, The Ivy. The subject was ‘Global Talent in UK Leadership’.

The UK today has more foreigners running their big businesses than any other country in the world (over one third of FTSE100 CEOs vs 7% of Fortune100 CEOs according to Heidrick & Struggles). The numbers are both striking and remarkable.

This instantly grabbed my attention. The global growing fracture around inequality and alarming worry over immigration always leads to far too many people becoming more ‘inward-looking’ and isolationist, as they deny the benefits of globalisation whilst focusing on their own ‘sovereignty’ and consequently, their borders.

So why in these changing times is the leadership talent in the UK is so unusually global? And what can we learn from the experiences of individual foreign leaders in UK business?

The diverse cultural mix of London is a huge and powerful pull.

Language, geography, and time-zone are central to the UK’s attractiveness to globally mobile talent. So many large international business stalwarts lead to a lack of big ‘national champions’ in business and reflect weaker domestic ties with government. This might well be a blessing in disguise, as it adds to a more external orientation.

This is very different to Africa, where national and many international businesses feel that they have no choice but to remain (too) close to government.

The UK’s comparatively small domestic market forces an external outlook and makes global outreach a central strategic imperative for all businesses of scale. US businesses, by contrast, with a much larger domestic market, can remain considerably more national in their orientation and leadership.

Back in Victorian times, London made a point of ‘telling’ its new arrivals precisely how they should behave, how they must talk and what class they would be. This lack of tolerance of any difference could not be further away from what London stands for today.

Diversity of input is a vital consideration in itself, leading to more robust and better decision making.

Roughly 30% of Londoners were born and bred there. Roughly 30% of Londoners came from the rest of Britain to deliver their aspirations. And roughly another 30% vitally came from outside of the UK with one over-riding objective – to better themselves, no matter what. This special mix and special tolerance has created the most special result.

But this is no time for complacency, as most would say that London is the real jewel in the global crown for the UK. Not many other parts of the UK are quite as welcoming of outsiders and difference as London manifestly is. In fact, there are no other cities on Earth that are quite so global in their nature or outlook. New York is certainly an international city, but it is first and foremost an American city.

Our gathered learned friends at the breakfast had come to a number of sharp and instructive conclusions. Whilst the context was focused (and maybe fixated) on the UK, or more honestly, London, the conclusions, I thought, could be useful and applicable universally.

By far the biggest lesson was to continue to treasure outsiders. It is paramount to embrace those who are different and with the huge added benefit of helping the UK better appeal to the diverse markets that its businesses serve.

To better learn how to explain, and share the benefits of being global. The strong sense that globalisation has created winners and losers in national populations is widespread, and not limited to Britain. Business leaders have a grave responsibility to find new and better ways to tell the story of globalisation. They must help demonstrate that it works for the many, not merely the few.

In order to survive the real backlash of globalisation, it is imperative to commit resources to keeping the door open. The febrile political environment will mean more bureaucracy and cost in attracting and retaining global talent. It is vital that these businesses send out uncompromising signals that they will remain highly committed to attracting the best global leadership talent to London.

These are lessons that are applicable to many African countries (and Cuba), where a new generation are ignoring national boundaries to make their skills and businesses opportunistically available to adjacent markets. Mutual trade is always the best way to cement better relationships with neighboring states.

There is a strange paradox in the UK: it appears to be able to entertain two quite different ideas simultaneously, one dynamically engaged with the world and the other in splendid isolation.

On reflection, perhaps part of the success of the ‘Leave’ campaigners at the Brexit referendum was that they offered both scenarios (the same could be said of President Elect Trump), whilst the Remain (and Clinton) camps only emphasised one.

Britain is not alone with this dilemma. The histories of Japan, China, Russia and the USA, to name but a few prominent examples, all illustrate recent tensions between ‘dynamic engagement’ and ‘splendid isolation’.

This is where the interests of business and the interests of the emerging nationalist majorities will struggle to find common ground.

This brings us back to Africa, where for maybe very different reasons we are seeing a similar tension between engagement and isolation.

President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, or to give him his full title, “Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President”, was the shock loser in his country’s recent election. It was living proof that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. It was as unexpected as his conceding defeat and offering to help his successor, the previously unheard of President Elect Adama Barrow, with the transition of power.

In recent years, Jammeh had cynically withdrawn Gambia from a number of international institutions in order to escape the glare of scrutiny, including the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court (ICC) and was increasingly diffident with the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Last year he declared Gambia Africa’s second Islamic republic. Barrow has promised to turnaround all these isolationist decisions.

Jammeh eschewed any meaningful collaboration with any of his neighbours, instead relying on some shady relationships with some Middle Eastern States and until recently, Taiwan.

Barrow won 45.5% of the vote compared to 36.7% for the incumbent President Jammeh. It was just as unexpected as the Brexit and Trump victories.

Far too many incumbent African presidents have played the nationalism card, which swiftly leads to isolation as they plunder the already slender state resources for themselves and their supporters’ benefit.

This is a very dangerous way forward. Gambia was literally left behind on all basic infrastructure developments. Far too many massive vanity projects, coupled with rare but well documented, ‘eye catching’ populist initiatives, usually just before the presidential elections. This is not any sort of sustainable or viable strategy, but all too recognisable across our beloved continent.

No African nation can even think about surviving on its own. The harsh and brutal lessons of Cuba, North Korea and the old Soviet Union are all staring us in the face. Conversely, the countries that have opened themselves up, like China, Vietnam, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, have all benefitted hugely from this ‘dynamic engagement’ with the outside world.

President Elect Trump continues to bark out his nationalistic and isolationist messages to his still roused and noisy following, sounding just like so many African presidents when they are out on the hustings. He and they tend to say anything at all that will increase their popularity and secure their election.

As we have seen with the Brexit leaders and Trump, who made outrageous promises - there doesn’t appear to be a day of reckoning. Is this the so called ‘post-truth’ world?

We all want and need something to belong to and someone to believe in. Our greatest leaders throughout history have always provided an inspired vision of the future, as they go on to serve and guide us towards it. This is what has established the so necessary spirit of belonging.

Nowadays, we have perhaps dangerously settled for belonging to those who frighten us into following them, and the destination is never clear, as all the energy is spent on demeaning their opponents’ vision. Why would we want to follow a pessimist?

As positive patriotism moves dangerously into negative nationalism, solidarity is diverging into the distrust of minorities, who are nowadays present in growing numbers.

For different reasons, Gambia and Cuba might just have that chance to change things for their people and give them something positive, vibrant and dynamic to belong to. We must remember that all successful contemporary national models for growth are based on collaboration not isolation.

The cities of Banjul and Havana have not seen the best of times far too long now.

This, as ever, will be a question of leadership – nothing more and nothing less.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. - Winston Churchill



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