Sunday 24 February 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Let's be optimistic despite the Apple crisis'

There's been a sense of apocalypse over the last week. All more reason to allow Leo be an optimist, writes Brendan O'Connor

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

It is fair to say that the general mood, as we look to 2019, is one of anxiety verging on panic. The media this past week has verged on the apocalyptic. The looking-forward-to-the-year-ahead pieces have been laced with fear and loathing, with lots of headlines about buckling up for a turbulent year.

There is a weird sense of vertigo here in Ireland, too; a feeling that we are perhaps teetering at the top end of a roller-coaster ride. Things are ostensibly good with the economy, with employment surging and even an accidental budget surplus of €100m (though that fact that €1.9bn in extra capital gains tax combined with an underspend of €250m in some areas only yielded €100m of a surplus is slightly disquieting).

But despite our booming economy, there is a sense of unease. This unease isn't helped by the fact that having taken a two-week respite from Brexit, we find ourselves back to business as usual and it seems, somehow, even worse and messier than when we left it before Christmas. Talk of stockpiling medicine adds to the sense of apocalypse now, though people were relieved when Leo assured us that no one would go hungry, that food shortages would be limited mainly to prepared food, the stuff you buy, the Taoiseach said, in Marks & Spencer. Maybe someone should have told him you can get ready meals in Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes and Tesco, too.

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It doesn't help that this can be a time of year when we pay more attention to foreign news, and none of it is good. The big China scare used to be that they were going to become the primary economic superpower. The worry now is that they won't, and that their leprechaun economic levels of growth are levelling off to a mere 6pc or so. All last week we read scare stories about Chinese consumption: whole newly-built cities that are like ghost estates, a drop in new car sales that has contributed to a €100bn collapse in share values of the big car manufacturers.

Even that reliable symbol of our consumer age, and of constant upgrade and technological advancement was hit last week when Apple shares plunged after the company warned revenue would be less than expected because people, primarily the Chinese, were not buying enough new phones. The Apple news sent a chill through share prices in the luxury sector that has boomed as a result of ever increasing Chinese consumption. The Apple news also sent a chill through Ireland, where Apple remains the State's biggest employer. More than that, the fact that the iPhone, an almost religious artefact of our times, could be losing its gloss seemed to signal something more about the end of an era of prosperity.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump's presidency, which we had been in various levels of denial about, seemed, over Christmas, to degenerate more towards everyone's worst fears. The last adults in the room were got rid of over Christmas and it seems he's really serious about that wall, so much so that he partially shut down the government over it, paralysing many state services and institutions.

Apart from the rumblings about Brexit, there are other potential storm clouds on the horizon, too, with talk of us losing our veto over EU tax changes that could threaten the corporation tax bonanza that our budget surpluses are built on. There are concerns, too, that America will flounder as Trump's stimulus plan comes to an end. And the US trade war with China is far from being resolved.

We are coming off a couple of years in which much of the country was delighted with ourselves. We had become more modern, more liberal. We were dealing with the dark chapters of our past. There was a mood of quiet exhilaration at times, and even not so quiet exhilaration. In some ways the last couple of years will be looked back on as a happy time for many. If you weren't homeless, against abortion or against gay marriage, Ireland was a good place to be. The economy ticked along nicely, almost despite our best efforts. This allowed the Government, and society, to concentrate more on issues of identity politics, culture wars, even re-electing Michael D because he flattered our self-image. As Frederick Herzberg would have had it, the basics, the so-called 'hygiene factors' were largely in order, so there was time and energy to focus on the so-called motivating factors, what Maslow characterised as higher order needs, seeking fulfilment rather than just focusing on surviving.

But the mood going into this year feels bleaker. More referenda won't excite the same passions as the last two, and it sounds like survival, the hygiene factors, the basics of the economy stupid, may need more attention. If Leo had the luxury of slightly governing in poetry up to now, it'll be all prosaic in 2019.

So what mood, what tone does the Taoiseach need to set as we head into this potentially tricky year? Because this is the most important thing any leader does, set a tone and a mood. Leo got in trouble before Christmas for characterising himself on the Late Late Show as the CEO of this organisation we call Ireland.

But in terms of leadership there are parallels between a Taoiseach and a CEO, and one of them is that, as the person who steers the ship, both Taoiseach and CEO are responsible for setting the mood and the tone. There is plenty of management research that shows that the mood and tone set by a CEO are not just fluffy background in a company. Mood and tone are crucial in determining culture and thus employee happiness, wellbeing and productivity. Some studies suggest tone is responsible for almost 30pc of an organisation's financial performance.

So what is the keynote tone Leo needs to strike right now? You would think, looking at the apocalyptic mood around the place, that optimism should be a keynote. Optimistic leaders usually inspire better performance in an organisation. This doesn't mean mindless or naive optimism, or a denial that problems exist. What we mean by optimism in this sense is a kind of realistic optimism. Bill Gates characterised his optimism not as ignoring problems but as believing solutions could be found to difficult problems.

Varadkar has many of the qualities of a good leader. Luck, so far, yes, but also the candour and openness of a good leader. Despite his reputation for being a spin merchant, when he sits down on his own with someone he tends to answer the question he is asked and he will do so in relatively straight terms, often managing, too, to render quite complicated things simple and digestible. His candour will often lead to the odd cringey moment but in general, people find it refreshing. He also has the energy a good leader needs, and you would imagine that he is, at heart, an optimist.

Of course, optimism can tend to go against a certain strain of the Irish psyche, which tends to cynicism, a self-protective mechanism which helps us to avoid disappointment. So when Varadkar is optimistic, or tries to be positive, he is often dismissed as being out of touch. "Look at Marks & Spencer's boy being all positive. Easy to know he's not homeless. Doesn't know what it's like to have things go against him."

But maybe, as we head with trepidation into this year, we should try and abandon some of our dearly held cynicism. Perhaps we shouldn't dismiss optimism. Perhaps we shouldn't forbid our leaders from being optimistic. Perhaps we should even give Leo a fair hearing when he says that this could be the year that homelessness turns around, and perhaps we should accept that poverty is falling all the time. Perhaps we should allow him to set a tone of trying to see the bright side of things this year, or at least believing that there are solutions to our problems.

Because it feels like we're going to need a bit of optimism in 2019.

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