“The old sorcerer has gone and left me here alone / Now I can make his spirits do as they are told / I’ve seen him work, I’ve heard his spells / I’ll use his powers and perform wonders as well.” Thus begins The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous poem in which the young apprentice, during his master’s absence, is left with chores to do. Many of you will be familiar with Walt Disney’s animated film version, Fantasia (1940), with Mickey Mouse in the role of the bumbling apprentice who “borrows” a magic spell from the old warlock and uses it to command a broom to fetch pails of water to fill a cauldron – the job he was supposed to do – but finds he doesn’t know how to break the spell. As the broom continues to empty water and as the cauldron overflows, only the master, back in the nick of time, is able to avert disaster.
It’s a situation that brings to mind a disaster of a different kind; this one down to certain second-generation entrepreneurs – heirs or managers – who, having taken up the mantle of the “sorcerer” who built up the successful company or brand, put a once flourishing business on the road to ruin.
It happens more frequently than one might imagine. Many household names – Ferruccio Ferragamo, Leonardo Del Vecchio, Ratan Tata, Luciano Benetton, and more – have had to reclaim their place at the helm of a company heading for disaster. The wise old heads are back out of retirement, and proving to be far more agile managers than the ambitious youngsters who’d taken their place, their Harvard MBA burning a hole in their briefcase. They are the “innovation managers” who revolutionised business and finance, a similar species to the “creative” managers who took Lehman Brothers over the edge in 2008 with $613 billion in debt and bond debt of $155 billion, prompting the disaster that still plagues the global economy today.
I know technology has transformed every area of our lives and work. Not only will these changes appear thicker and faster in the years to come, they will probably wreak even greater havoc and be even harder to control. Which is precisely why, more than ever, we need the old sorcerers to work their magic.
I belong to that generation and, when I look around me, I don’t feel I should be put out to pasture yet. Yes, we were born when telephones were a rarity made out of black Bakelite. Yes, we fumble with smartphones and are far from fluent in Facebook and company, but when it comes to culture and vision, we (still) have plenty to offer. Or, in the manner of Goethe: “Broom! Broom, back to your corner, away! / And spirits, only your master shall you obey!”