Hay Festival: what boards can learn from Antony Beevor, Dambisa Moyo & Afua Hirsch

Recently at the Hay Festival, I had the good fortune on the same day to attend three great talks by three impressive speakers and, during audience questions, to ask them three linked questions the answers to which, perhaps surprisingly, all have relevance to boards.

Historian Antony Beevor talked about his new book, Arnhem: The Battle For The Bridges, 1944 in which he describes, almost on an hour by hour basis, that devastating defeat. I asked him if there was any evidence around the behaviour of the decision-makers involved in the plan, codenamed Operation Market Garden.

It turns out that the behaviour that led to the decision-making errors was appalling. However, nothing that would surprise many board directors today in business: overconfidence, wrong or skewed intelligence, last minute changes, poor communications and above all, vanity.

As with many boards, dissenting voices were neither encouraged nor heeded. One member of the military team saw the flaws in the plan but was ignored and sidelined, a regular occurrence in business.

I acknowledge that the war context is wholly different in implications than in peacetime business and is not comparable, but the behaviour is identical.

Dambisa Moyo is a prize-winning economist, and author of Winner Take All and Dead Aid. Her talk at Hay was about her new book Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth - and How to Fix It. While I struggle with her ideas on "weighted voting" I find her analysis of the negative impact of short-termism compelling.

I asked her about her views on the growing trend in using ESG (Environment, Society & Governance) metrics in decision-making. She supports these but takes an even more radical view of what needs to done to fix the "myopia" as she sees it.

Boards who want to be more effective might take note of her anecdote about a study in 2013 into the qualities of those who survive Navy Seal Training which revealed that "the top indicator of [success] was a high level of expertise in chess" and not physical fitness. "Chess players are strategic thinkers who see beyond the next move or the next challenge" Her point is an antidote to the short-termism so prevalent on boards.

Author and journalist