Sarah Sands: Attention to detail is the basis for terror

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For masters of the universe, as for tyrants, ridicule is a far worse punishment than hostility. Fred Goodwin has brought down a bank and imperilled his country's economy. But his epitaph will be an email headed: "Rogue biscuits".

The petulance of the powerful is a source of wonder and revenge for the rest of us. It seems incredible that a man who regarded himself as a Julius Caesar of the business world should rage at the appearance of pink wafers in the boardroom, but it is entirely plausible. I compare it with press proprietor Richard Desmond's insistence on a silver plate for his banana or Prince Charles's reported demands for seven boiled eggs in a row, so that he can choose the perfect solidity. But there is a difference between the eccentricity of a future king and the rage of the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Attention to detail is the basis of terror.

Like Stalin, Fred Goodwin was observant. A small accidental stain on the wallpaper meant immediate and expensive decoration. We did not hear the fate of the person who made the mark, or of the enthusiast who ordered amber carpets, blithely ignorant of Goodwin's detestation of the colour. I am not suggesting that the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland bumped off the well-meaning idiots who clouded his serene view of "Fred's pleasure dome". The trembling window cleaner who broke the toy aeroplane has lived to tell the tale. And when new management moved into the headquarters, they did not actually find gigantic golden heads of Goodwin.

He might cite creative organisations as his inspiration. He wanted to be so much more than a banker, and aesthetic fascism could be the mark of a man of extraordinary taste. What would Anna Wintour do if an intern pushed a plate of pink wafer biscuits across the desk? The blissful but short lived tweets from "Condé elevator" documented what was considered outlandish in the office. In one, a woman steps into the elevator holding an omelette. She is asked: "What's the occasion?"

I wonder if Anna Wintour knows the word biscuit. A comic twist in the Fred Goodwin story is that it suddenly takes him into the territory of Peter Kay. When I have visited swank offices I have been offered jelly beans or cup cakes. For all Goodwin's global aspirations, his sensibility is in the northern towns of the 1950s. This is perhaps the only endearing thing one can say about him.

The biscuit episode is cited in Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi's book Masters of Nothing: How the Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature, because the authors claim that personal behaviour is important in leadership. Power and megalomania are as close as siblings. Fortune and high office protect you from the misery of bureaucracy and the rest of life's frustrations. It is not the money that separates the powerful and the powerless so much as the VIP lanes. So when your will is suddenly confounded in the shape of pink wafer biscuits, you go nuts.

That is where good leadership is distinguished from bad. David Cameron was right to suck up to the Italian waitress who failed to serve him. Fred Goodwin should have gracefully eaten the wretched snack. When you are about to destroy a bank and ruin the lives of so many tea ladies, you need to seek good opinion where you can find it.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'