Tuesday 14 February 2012

If only we had the sense or luck to quit while we were ahead

You might think that a crusty, opera-loving reactionary like me would recognise Whitney Houston only as a misspelt entry in a particularly unlikely town twinning contest. But you would be wrong.

I was a great admirer of the lady and her work. However, I am sadly ill equipped to fill a column with tales of “the Whitney I knew”. My closest non-encounter was being almost thrown out of a London pub in the 1980s for staring rather too longingly at someone who bore a striking resemblance to her.

So let us move on instead to some more general reflections on the lessons we may learn from her sad passing.

Despite its occasional tragedies, I view this existence essentially as a comedy. Not least because both share the same fundamental secret: it is all about timing.

Whether in the arts, business, sport or life in general, the hardest reputational trick to pull off is quitting while you are ahead.

In our current obsession with “sustainability”, which is now displacing “corporate social responsibility” as the most fashionable buzzword in business, we risk losing sight of the fact that ultimately nothing is sustainable. In the long run, all will be dust and ashes.

This is supposed to represent "sustainability". I look forward to the "After" shot with a fully grown tree.

People, industries, economies, nations and empires rise; and then they decline. It is an immutable law. We must remember this so that we can respond with appropriate speed and brutality the next time some halfwit claims to have abolished boom and bust.

No one stays at the top forever. And, as the friend who climbed most of Everest last year kept reminding me, getting to the summit is actually the easier bit; 80% of fatalities occur on the descent.

"Green boots": one of the less gruesome shots of the 200 bodies littering Mount Everest

The art is knowing when to step off the Paternoster lift of your career before you end up mangled in the mechanism, as poor Whitney did.

One who managed this brilliantly was Sir Terry Leahy, who retired last year aged just 55 after 13 years as Chief Executive of Tesco, masterminding its transformation into the UK’s largest and most successful retailer.

He left with general adulation ringing in his ears. Yet within months “The Big Price Drop” turned out to be not just the name of Tesco’s latest marketing campaign, but the City’s unamused reaction to its post-Christmas profit warning.

At the opposite extreme, the former Sir Fred Goodwin (shortly to be compelled by the Forfeiture Committee to change his surname to Badloss) demonstrates what happens if you are left holding the ticking parcel when it goes off.

He's got the gun, but apparently it has proved impossible in Scotland to find the traditional bottle of whisky

I am not questioning his culpability for the almost unbelievable mess that RBS became. But I feel sure that there are many others who played key roles in the ruination of British banking, yet managed to sneak quietly away to enjoy their bonus-fuelled riches untroubled by public demands for retribution.

For those whose career choices are going to be inevitably short-lived – there being limited demand for, say, 70-year-old Page 3 girls – there is always the faint possibility of personal reinvention. Brian Cox has successfully turned himself from minor pop star into popular science guru, and Sebastian Coe from successful athlete into Tory politician, now transcending party as the driving force behind the London Olympics. But for most of us, just one fleeting taste of minor success is more than we can reasonably hope for.

Tony Blair famously tried to manage his reluctant departure from office with the aid of Philip Gould’s cringe-making memo recommending him to “leave with the crowds wanting more”. Great advice: terrible timing. But at least he was in good company in failing to grasp that the moment had come when he had delighted the public long enough.

All of us sharing that particular boat with him, and my fellow fans of Whitney Houston, can only muse on those two sad words that often come to mind on Valentine’s Day: if only …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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