What would Larry do?

21 May 2024

Aidan Rave wonders what legendary sourpuss Larry David would make of the Post Office inquiry

For those of you unfamiliar with the premise of the multi-award-winning Curb Your Enthusiasm, here’s a quick run-down. Larry David (creator of the equally multi-award-winning sitcom Seinfeld) plays a fictionalised version of himself, plotting his way through life with his curmudgeonly demeanour while being unafraid to call out the idiocy of modern life.

The title comes from the notion that many people (and remember, the series is set mainly in California) have an overinflated sense of just how wonderful everything is and, in Larry’s view, should just curb their enthusiasm a bit.

I was thinking about Larry recently as I watched the latest gripping instalment of the Post Office inquiry, with the utterly majestic Jason Beer KC deftly and methodically exploring the finer details of just what went wrong, how it seemed to go wrong for so long and critically, who knew what and when.

Beer has been a revelation during these hearings, he is unflappable, for the most part gentle, considerate, thoughtful and, of course, utterly and ruthlessly focused on getting to the truth. Watching him in action, it would be difficult to imagine anyone more suited to the role of counsel to the inquiry... with one possible exception, perhaps.

Let’s suspend reality for a moment and invite Larry David KC (kvetch and curmudgeon) to ask the questions, or as Larry himself would put it in his Brooklyn drawl, “lemmy askya summin…”

Who’s sorry now?

Let’s start with the word sorry. Everyone involved has been at pains to tell us how sorry they are. The former chief executive, her senior management team, the chair, his board, the investigators—everyone is brimming with remorse, regret and anguish at the pain they have inflicted on countless innocent people.

Frankly, I’m not sure all this sorrow would cut much mustard with Larry. I think he might be asking if it might just be a little bit confected and performative—obligatory, even?

Of course everyone is sorry now and of course everyone is obliged to demonstrate their regret while they sit squirming in the dock, but what exactly are they sorry for?

Presumably, they thought they were doing the right thing at the time—defending the brand—as many leaders would instinctively do. Sure, we now know that there was a point when trends should have been spotted and someone—either an individual or the board—should have pressed the big red ‘stop’ button, but they didn’t. Are they now sorry for that?

Larry wouldn’t buy the lazy assumption that these were simply bad people, nor I suspect will Jason Beer KC. While it makes for compelling TV dramas and sensational newspaper headlines and campaigns (although where were they at the time?) it’s hard to marshal a substantive argument that Paula Vennells, Sir Tim Parker, Angela van den Bogerd and others were simply acting with malice.

They were part of a collective corporate governance failure, for which they should be held accountable, but if they didn’t act purely with ill-intent or malice, then their response needs to be slightly more nuanced than ‘sorry’, as does the public reaction to it.

There but for the grace of God…

One of the reasons Larry would be so unimpressed with all of the heartfelt apologies is that he knows that right now, in boardrooms up and down the country and across the globe, the same conditions exist for corporate governance failure.

As my colleague Andrew Corbett-Nolan sets out in his blog, a failure of the board to sufficiently challenge what they were being told not only damaged hundreds of innocent reputations and lives but also the brand they were purportedly trying to protect.

Any of us who sit on boards are vulnerable to those self-same conditions and I suspect none of us would want to be sitting before Jason Beer KC or his equivalent in ten years, explaining why we didn’t challenge hard enough.

So, maybe next time you are in a meeting and something doesn’t quite stack up, ask yourself, what would Larry do?

Meet the author: Aidan Rave

Principal Consultant

Find out more

Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

Enquire about this article

Here to help