Ben Kepes: The lonely slog of modern warfare in the boardroom trenches

Opinion:

I grew up hearing stories of my heroic cousins in Israel who, due to the parlous state of their nation, had to serve in the army from the tender age of 18.

As a young, impressionable lad who had seen more than his fair share of army movies, I was all excited about the action and that was the main lens through which I saw their military lives.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve grown a realisation for the fact that anyone who experiences war becomes scarred by what they see and do and will be forever changed by the experience. War, as they say, is hell and not something we should wish on anyone.

So, while I can’t comprehend what it is really like fighting in a war, anyone who lived in Canterbury through the earthquakes of a decade ago will have some kind of insight into the intensity of the experiences and relationships that are borne out of highly traumatic situations.

I’ve been thinking about life in the trenches recently, but within a far less deadly (and muddy) context – that of the business boardroom. Now, before anyone calls me out for even thinking about suggesting that serving on a board of directors is in any way analogous to fighting in a war, please hear me out. While the impacts of warfare on life and liberty are far more serious than those of the boardroom duel, some situations are actually a fair comparison.

One of the boards I serve upon at the moment is becoming a little more all-encompassing than is the norm. There are some pretty critical issues to deal with and as board members, we’re having to spend an inordinate amount of time wearing (proverbial) flak jackets to dodge the shrapnel.

Again, I’m not wanting to in any way overstate how traumatic board work is, and not wishing to articulate a “poor me” message. That said, the current situation shows just how lonely leadership is, and just how much it means to have your colleagues around you and on your wing.

We have the absolute privilege in New Zealand of living in a country in which labour laws are strong and protective and do a great job of ensuring workers can get the support they need in and out of work. Those labour regulations, however, don’t apply to board members. Much like soldiers who put themselves in positions where physical and emotional damage can occur, so too do board members have the lonely task of suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with no real support mechanisms in place.

As I write this I can feel the torrent of abuse that will no doubt come down the lines as people accuse me of crying about the poor pale, stale, males who are paid big money to sit in jolly old board rooms and eat fancy savouries. Admittedly, much of the time board roles are something of a sinecure and it’s a grand old like.

As I was told when I attended the Institute of Directors’ Company Directors Course, 90 per cent of the time board work is easy and light and a walk in the park. That 10 per cent of the time, however, can be brutal.

So in an ideal world people would be kind and would have some level of understanding that company directors make their decisions for the betterment of the company and that sometimes they are forced to make unpalatable decisions. We don’t live in that ideal world, however, and much like soldiers who have seen war, or Cantabrians who have lived through the trauma of the quakes we grow an understanding, empathy and affinity for others’ experiences.

This is why this article is dedicated to my fellow board members in this particular organisation. It’s tough and thankless and you are blamed for every single bad thing that happens. But what you do is important and hopefully secures the future of your organisation and the people who work within it. I’d like to suggest that one day those same people lobbing grenades will thank you for your efforts but, sadly, they won’t. These words will have to suffice.

– Ben Kepes is a Christchurch-based investor and entrepreneur.

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