For a man who freely admits that he loves the sound of his own booming voice, Lord Digby Jones of Birmingham talks a considerable amount of sense.
He’s not everybody’s cup of tea – Private Eye recently called him ‘insufferably smug’ – but there’s a disarming approachability to Birmingham’s most famous peer that tends to leave the harshest of critics up a cul de sac with nowhere to go.
Digby cheerfully acknowledges his faults, whilst wasting little time in reminding us all of his abilities. Which are many and varied.
In any case, Baron Jones, who also admits loving being the centre of attention, has rather a lot to shout about.
He has fought his way up from humble beginnings in his parents’ shop in Alvechurch, Worcestershire, to become a top lawyer, acclaimed director-general of the CBI, Trade Minister, and much else besides.
But people rise to the top of organisations all the time, often by ruthlessly treading on others and destroying careers in the process, all in the name of naked self-interest. Many congratulations.
But by far and away the most interesting thing about Digby is that he has retained a fiercely independent streak, rejecting the trappings of political power as soon as he realized the ultimately corrosive effect on the soul.
To his enormous credit, he refused to join the Labour Party when Gordon Brown offered him the Trade Minister’s job, arguing persuasively that he would be far more effective without party political allegiance.
He refused to sign red box papers during a 20-minute car journey and fell out with civil servants over his choice of Ministerial car.
He says of his time in Ministerial ranks: “It was no place for a non-party political specialist trying to do things differently. I knew it was the right time to go.”
In a fascinating interview with my colleague Roz Laws in last week’s Post, Digby talked yet more sense.
In a splendid rebuke of Lord Sugar’s ghastly TV ego-fest The Apprentice, Digby said: “I’ve been going on at the Beeb for a few years, telling them that business isn’t about a man getting out of a Rolls-Royce and shouting ‘you’re fired’ at people.
"And it shouldn’t be about humiliating someone with a bright idea, making them feel stupid and saying you won’t invest in them, as in Dragons' Den.
“We need to change how business is portrayed on TV, but I didn’t want to do a reality show.
“I didn’t want to be a kind of Gordon Ramsay, going into kitchens and swearing at people.
“I don’t tell people what to do. I work with them and try to get them to a point where they make a decision themselves. Then they will buy into it better. I find a bit of humour goes a long way.”
This was stirring stuff, a wonderful debunking by a heavyweight public figure of the oft recited and stale old maxim that ‘there’s no sentiment in business’ and that the only reliable management tool is a bludgeon, delivered on a frequent basis to unproductive underlings.
It’s the sort of sledgehammer approach that might ‘work’ in North Korea (or even the occasional football dressing room) but nobody would cite Pyongyang as a praiseworthy template for civilized human relations, either in the workplace or anywhere else for that matter.
It’s doubtful if dictators like Kim Jong Un, or even some of the louder political classes over here in the UK, will ever admit to the odd mistake, but Digby has no such qualms.
“I’m prepared to admit it when I get it wrong. That’s not a sign of weakness... there’s no substitute for hard work and you must never be complacent.”
It would seem that Lord Jones really does understand human nature in a way that many of our so-called leaders can never aspire to.
He saw through all the smoke and mirrors, the absurd sense of entitlement that so often characterises the political classes and their petty vanities – the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 perfectly illustrated that one – and walked away from it to concentrate on his advisory and charity work, public speaking, plus his House of Lords activities.
Lord Jones says the best piece of advice he ever received was from his senior partner at Edge and Ellison, John Wardle, 30 years ago.
“I was carrying his bags on a deal and said ‘that was easy’ when we’d finished. He looked me in the eye and said ‘people who make things look easy work hard, prepare and take nothing for granted. He made me feel about three inches tall and I’ve never forgotten it.”
Occasionally, in public life, a little humility goes a long way. Even good old Rupert Murdoch, the man who has done more than most on the planet to attempt world cultural domination over the course of an extraordinary career, sounded ever so slightly mortal when he gave his first interview for five years recently.
Rupe told Fortune magazine: “Well, my mother just died at 103, so that’s a start. You should live 20 years longer than your parents. (laughs) That may not be realistic, but I’m in good physical shape, according to the doctors.
“And don’t worry – my children will be the first to tell me if I start losing some mental ability. That will be the time to step back.”
If even Rupert Murdoch, now 83, can at last admit to the remote possibility of losing some of the mental staying power that has served him for more than eight decades, there’s hope for all the rest of us, as we go about this strange daily business of human survival.
And having someone with the insight and candour of Digby Jones along for the ride is also a bonus.