‘Captain of Industry’ an offensive term? Thanks Tony

‘Captain of Industry’ an offensive term? Thanks Tony

Following a series of ‘Captain’s Calls’ by our esteemed Prime Minister in the past few months, business commentators might have to rethink their use of the time-honoured term ‘captain of industry’.

It’s probably safe to say that the pace of digital change in businesses and the at times poor response by some of these ‘captains’ to this change had put the term on notice. But with Abbott’s help, you would be safe in assuming that if someone refers to you now as a ‘Captain of Industry’, you’d have every right to be offended.

At  the very least, alarm bells should be ringing in your head. It means you are potentially male, over 55, white, digitally illiterate, very experienced in things that don’t really matter that much any more; have great business war stories, make boofhead decisions and are  probably a bit pompous.

On ABC TV’s The Business  last week,  ‘Ticky’  introduced some  balding old bloke with grey hair  as a ‘captain of industry’.  He was immediately unimpressive although he did have a lovely  ‘granddad type’ demeanour about him. He had a view on everything of course, largely totally out of date views to the point of being almost stupid.  Which might explain why the company he has chaired for the past 10 years or so is now an icon in terms of how ‘boards who aren’t in touch can wreck a once great brand and company’.

It wasn’t so much that this guy was thick or inexperienced, it was more that he had an inflated view of the importance of his experience, past leadership roles and standing in the business community.  He wasn’t at all in touch with the revolution in business thinking and leadership going on at a million miles an hour around him that is being underpinned by digital.

One reason I suspect some ‘old captains’ carry on like this is that there isn’t a huge incentive for them to update to a paradigm that doesn’t reflect the values and structures in which they developed their power base and wealth. So they stick with what they know. This would be OK, except  by sticking around stubbornly with this attitude, they are often doing quite a bit of harm to established companies and employees through the board process (not to mention shareholders).

Last week B&T’s ‘Can you think young, Millenials Test’ went viral. It ended up everywhere, even into the school yards of Australia . I sent it to a few people I know who are ‘captain-ish’ and asked them to do it as a favour. They all scored under 40%, or near enough.

So what? It’s not really serious is it? And besides, they are all old. Shouldn’t they score under 40% anyway?

One of the under 40 per centers commented to me: “ I guess some people will fall for it, but its not very serious is it? I mean by this that….” I stopped listening. This guy is good for a beer and if you want to know how blokes managed companies in the 90s. I stopped managing with a 90s playbook by at least 2006, when Google became interesting.

Of course, there are always exceptions to rules, especially new ones made up by people who aren’t qualified to make them, like me. Its hard not to think of Richard Goyder as anything but a ‘captain of industry’.  He doesn’t fit the Abbott captain paradigm, being still somewhat wise, a contributor and a determined and innovative thinker. Which reinforces a point that ‘older managers’ remain invaluable contributors to the development of new, and the transformation of old , businesses, especially if they can ‘think  young’ as a part of their strategic repertoire.

But good or bad ‘captain’  the ‘captain’ tag is probably never coming back from the drubbing that  Tony Abbott has managed to give it. He’s probably redefined the term ‘captain’s call’ for all time as:   Random, idiotic and  self delusional decision made by a person who through a series of unfortunate and bizarre circumstanes is either a business or political leader. Generally such a person is universally disliked and regarded as a loser.

And with that, any reference to ‘captain’ and ‘industry’ has suddenly become quite damning.

So if you are a bit older , a little worried about digital disruption and you really want to get back into it, and do good work, don’t despair. See how you score in the B&T Millennials test (click here) and determine for yourself if it is ‘flippant’ and ‘irrelevant’, as we’ve had some older ‘gents’ comment or if its fun and makes you at least  think a bit about how you manage Millennials and for that matter “Twotennials “(our new super demographic) in an age where digital is testing everyone’s will and skill.

After all this is industrial revolution 2.0 (IR2). There’s never been a time like it as far imagination and opportunity is concerned. No one in their right mind would want to miss it.


Meet some ‘new age’ Captains like Kim Williams and Matt Barrie (Freelancer.com) at B&T’s Daze of Disruption conference, and hear what they have to say about the requirements of modern leadership in a’digitally disrupted world’. Click Here

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