Sometime in the mid-1990s, I interviewed Philippa Reid, the then new, energetic head of Andersen Consulting* in Hungary, about the challenges of running a firm so intrinsically 'western' in its corporate philosophy in a still very much 'emerging' east European environment.
Photo: the UEFA Super Cup. Getty Images,
from UEFA press release
One of the issues, she said, was how to instil a culture recognising the need for agreed, standard procedures and protocols in order to create a smoothly runnning, efficient business.
“Take mobile phones,” Ms Reid said, referring to the then still very new device (and status symbol) in Hungary. “Who should have a company mobile and who not?” she said, raising her eyebrows to emphasise the importance of what might seem a trivial question.
“Here, all too often, the protocol amounts to my mate Laci wanted one, we had one spare in the cupboard, so we gave it to him."
Laci, no doubt, felt good about this decision. Maybe, indeed, he worked hard, and deserved a bonus. But what about Zsofi, his colleague, who equally puts in a shift each day? Or Bence, the quiet one in the basement with the boring, but essential administrative task?
Running your office like this can easily create frustration and jealousy among employees and ultimately end up in chaos.
Ms Reid didn't put it as such, but a business school guru might describe it as “Management by Personal Whim”.
To some extent, MBPW 'lite' has a place. Indeed, it's part of being human. Who doesn't feel good when they can do someone a favour?
But in Hungary, hard-core MBPW, often backed with taxpayers' money, seems all too common, and at the highest levels.
Barely three weeks ago, in order to combat the rising number of coronavirus infections, Hungary announced new, stricter entry requirements for foreign visitors. It's tough for all of us, true, but these are dangerous times, and most recognise sacrifices have to be made for the common good.
But a few days later, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met his Czech counterpart at a conference in Slovenia. Could not some exception be made for Czech holidaymakers who've booked accommodation in Hungary, the man from Prague asked?
It's not public how long Mr Orbán pondered this request, or if he consulted his Chief Medical Officer for advice, but the answer came soon enough. For you and your friends Andrej, they'll need a clean C-19 test and proof of booking, but yes, come on in.
Actually, it's unlikely the prime minister pondered long – he feels being fast and decisive is one of his best qualities. And he surely did not ask for advice – or if he did, he ignored it – because the Czech Republic at the time, just like Hungary was experiencing an upturn in infections. Czech numbers surged through the 500 per day level at the time of Orban's U-turn and hit a record 1,446 last Friday.
But it gets worse: as any half-decent, high-school student of political geography could have predicted, as soon as they heard the news, the Poles and Slovaks piped up: Er, Mr Orbán, what about our vacationers? They've paid for hotels too, nem tudod? Where's your V4 solidarity in all this?
Sure enough, despite C-19 infections at or near record levels, Slovaks and Poles were given special deals to enjoy the delights of Balaton and Tokaj in the September sun.
I have no idea how many took up the idea, but perhaps some of those already wish they hadn't.
Because coronavirus infections in Hungary broke daily records six times in the first fortnight of September, hitting a new high of 916 in the 24 hours ending on Saturday morning. In the past week, the government has recorded 3,922 new cases, bringing the number of active infections to 7,603.
We have to see this in the Hungarian context.
If we go back one calendar month, Hungary had a mere 645 active infections, and the total cases since the start of the pandemic had reached 4,813. Today, that cumulative total is 12,309 – two and a half times as many in one month.
In late March-April, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, with lockdown at its most intense, daily infections were in the 100 – 110 range (with one exceptional peak of 210).
Last week, the daily average rate was 560, that is five times the rate during worst days of the first wave.
Granted, there is more testing today – lack of which was a dreadful weakness in the early days – which inevitably reveals more cases. And the average age of infections has come down – one report put it at 26 – meaning, so far, the death rate has remained remarkably low. The deceased now number 637, a rise of just 13 in the week.
In addition, the country is more experienced at dealing with the epidemic, and as we know, the government has taken additional measures, cancelling or restricting events in an effort to avoid throttling the economy as it struggles to recover.
But could it, should it do more? Yes - and here's where we return to Management by Personal Whim.
In 11 days time, Hungary will host the final of football's 2020 UEFA Super Cup between Bayern Munich of Germany and Seville of Spain. The game, at Budapest's Puskás Arena, will take place in front of 20,000 spectators, which is less than one third of the stadium's total capacity to allow for social distancing. 3,000 tickets are allocated to fans of each of the two respective teams.
Photo: the Puskás Arena - a truly splendid spectacle - shame about the cost.
The decision to stage the game in Budapest – no doubt after a massive and expensive lobbying effort by Hungary – came in June, when C-19 infection rates in Hungary had on some days reached single figures, so, from an pandemic point of view, was not unreasonable.
The decision to allow spectators to attend appears to have been made by UEFA on August 25, at a time when daily cases had risen into the 30 – 40 range. Hardly a case for panic, but surely, given the trend, something of a strange decision, given that the government was already talking about stricter entry conditions into Hungary?
Perhaps you are wondering there might be some kind of disconnect here?
You'd be correct. Now we all know which of the Visegrad Four's PM is mad about football, and who has built and rebuilt stadia all over the country in a series of programmes that has cost billions.
Indeed, the Puskás Arena looks splendid, has won awards, and no doubt makes many a Magyar proud.
(I'm not so sure they would be so proud if they considered the cost. According to its Wikipedia entry, the last cost estimate for the construction was EUR 610 million, “well over 100% of the original cost estimates and is far more expensive than similarly-sized stadiums in Europe such as the Allianz Arena in Munich or Arsenal's Emirates Stadium” in London.”)
Regardless of that Management by Personal Whim decision/scandal, UEFA publicly admits that the game has been chosen “to test partial return of spectators” - see https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/mediaservices/mediareleases/news/0260-103712e48c82-4059778ef426-1000--uefa-super-cup-to-test-partial-return-of-spectators/
Now I myself love the beautiful game. I looked on when Fradi put three past Alan Shearer's Newcastle United in 1996, watched Celtic against MTK in 2003, saw the Honved – Manchester United game in 1993 (but can't remember the result), and laughed out loud to see the totally outgunned Zalaegerszeg slip one past the same Lancastrian team in the final minute of their 2002 Budapest encounter.
And yes, sooner or later, spectators have to return to the game – just not in Hungary when the country is recording 560 new C-19 infections per day, and rising – most particularly when one of the competing teams is from Spain, a country now battling its own second wave of the pandemic.
Indeed, in the current situation, it should not even be played behind closed doors, as Tibor Vidos, one Hungarian opponent of the event, has suggested in the petition he's launched to reduce the risks to Magyars (in Hungarian and English) here:
It's not just the fans – the teams, medical and other hangers on, match officials and international media attending the game, who must total in the hundreds - all pose a totally unnecessary threat to the Hungarian public at this stage in the pandemic.
For now, Mr Orbán and his government are treating what are, in the context of Hungary, shocking infection figures, softly softly, stressing the need to keep the economy going.
(As I am writing this story, the government has sent me this link – bigged up as an 'exclusive' by the PM to his own press office. http://abouthungary.hu/blog/pm-orban-in-an-exclusive-interview-our-war-plan-against-the-coronavirus-is-about-ensuring-that-hungary-continues-to-function/ )
Such a policy is fine and logical - but the economy can recover without encouraging 20,000 plus people – including at least 7,000 from outside Hungary - assembling in Zugló on September 24.
One thing I can certainly agree on with Mr Vidos is this game is a gamble, and Viktor Orbán's gamble at that – but a prime minister should not gamble with the lives of his people for his personal hobbies.
Mr Orbán likes to be seen as a strong, decisive man: can he be strong and decisive enough to abandon this vanity project and cancel this potentially deadly event?
If not we can only hope UEFA, or even the teams involved, will do it for him, or the rather elegant UEFA Super Cup may prove to be a poison chalice for some of the Hungarian Nation - and a direct result of Mr Orbán's MBPW leadership.
* Note: Andersen Consulting later changed its name to Accenture.