by Alexa Kefalas for Bonjour Athenes
The Lyric Revolution
At the head of the Greek National Opera for almost a year, Nikos Mourkogiannis has managed to save this historic institution by straightening out its economics and transforming it into a cultural place par excellence. Our interview took place at the Athens Club in the centre of the capital, a place where he frequents. Nikos Mourkogiannis with his round tiger eyed glasses and a wide brimmed hat pulled down over his head has a killer smile. This is a man of communication who is suspicious of platitudes, a pragmatist averse to ideology, and a provocateur who knows how to show
conservatism, a lover of change as much as politics. At 55, he is the phoenix of a life where he is eternally dissatisfied with himself and where he has tried several times to change. As the head of the Greek National Opera in Athens, he avoids conventions. This is what makes him original. His philosophy is unique and reminds me of Rimbaud: “change everything”.
In April 2010, when the government entrusted him with the Greek National Opera, he had to make a choice: either to close the historical institution or to revive it. For this brilliant economist, a Harvard graduate, the solution is a mathematical one, “It is almost as expensive to keep it alive than it is to close it. I therefore took the lead…I am from Mani and thus take a direct course,” says Nikos Mourkogiannis. A few weeks later the opera is everywhere. And even outside Akademias Avenue. We find the troops in summer theaters, hospitals for the holiday season, plastered on double-decker buses roaming the streets of Athens. The program takes off and “for the first time, all performances are sold out!” he exclaims.
Ten months later, it is a success. The budget is balanced. A time of fun for a man who always breaks records; He graduated first from the Athens Law School, then Harvard, not to mention his studies in French Literature to which he proudly says he owes a lot. Everything Nikos Mourkogiannis touches turns to gold. After Harvard, he became a Director of F-16 Programs and then Chairman of Monitor Group, Europe. He was soon close to the world leaders in politics and business. Renowned for his love of concepts, he is capable of explaining in simple terms the most subtle rules of economics.
Sometimes he is reserved and appears to be somewhere else, especially when it comes to small talk. But everyone will tell you that he is totally present and attentive with his interlocutors and his dossiers to the point where is interested in technical details that would scare even a graduate of the French School of National Administration. He is always thinking about the formation of high performance teams. He could fill a key chapter in a management book from a single conversation.
Nikos Mourkogiannis is bursting with ideas. For him, the arts can help save Greece from the crisis.”The country cannot depend only on Mykonos for the tourist season; Athens must be changed and even Faliron must be made into a centre for open air concerts, like Venice. Summer opera is a key requirement.”, he says with enthusiasm. In terms of artistic performance, the most complete Greek product, according to him, is Maria Callas. “Thus, it is necessary to work on this originality” but he wants to continue to innovate. Patriotic but progressive, he wants to make the national Greek holidays a symbol of Greek civil consciousness. The 25th March celebrations were based on the theme of lyricism and ecological patriotism so that the environment would be an affair of the heart. And for the national holiday of next 28th October, he has already put in place a concert with the participation of Europeans and above all the Italians.
The lyrical revolution is underway for Nikos Mourkogiannis and he hopes the rhythm will lead to its success.
Phileleftheros on Sunday
Sunday, March 13
Interview with Antigone Solomonidou Drousiotou
Many don’t believe the Cyprus issue is a problem
Nikos Mourkogiannis: I feel indebted to Cyprus and debts must always be repaid
He has participated in numerous groups that have worked to find a solution to the Cyprus issue and bitterly he states that there are those who do not consider it a problem. Studying the history of the negotiation process, he pin-points the mistake as being that the Greek-Cypriot side refused to accept something at one given point that would later become one of its demands. The current Chairman of the Greek National Opera, Nikos Mourkogiannis, talks about his 35-year-long career and about his return to Greece.
As a Greek, do you feel that there is an unsettled debt with Cyprus?I really feel a huge debt of gratitude toward the Greek Cypriots. We are all, at least my generation and older ones, the children of defeat, one that was caused by us in Greece and is being paid for by the wonderful people of Cyprus. I feel a great sense of love for Cyprus. I spent many years abroad, writing about and being involved in the Cyprus issue. At the same time, I have great admiration for the achievements of the Greek Cypriot people. I will never forget how just weeks after the catastrophe, the Cypriot government was functioning and struggling to build a new economy. As a lawyer, I have a special sense of admiration for the Cypriot legal system, which I consider the best in the world. Finally, and I repeat, I feel indebted to Cyprus and, you know, debts are not written off; they have to be repaid.
You participated in the group that drew up the “Single Negotiating Text,” which was used by US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in the Camp David Accords. What would you do for Cyprus?
I participated in a lot of other groups with which we tried to offer a solution to the Cyprus issue. As co-founder of Harvard Negotiation Center I spent five years in talks with the other side, including with former Turkish President Turgut Ozal, in exploratory talks. But the stars were not favorably lined up. The difference between the situation in the Middle East during the Camp David period and in Cyprus today is that at the Middle East was a problem at the time, and, when you define something as a problem, there are solutions. I am not certain that the Cyprus issue is considered a problem by the majority today. It is a problem for refugees.
That does not sound positive for the likelihood of a solution.
I repeat; a solution presupposes the existence of a problem. For many of us it is there; but for many others it is not. As you may remember, [former Turkish Prime Minister Bulent] Ecevit repeatedly stated that the Cyprus issue was no longer a problem.
The Cypriot issue is a problem in terms of Turkey’s EU accession process.
In my book “Purpose,” I argue that everything depends on the purpose you set for achieving your goals. As you very correctly said, the Cypriot issue is a problem for those in Turkey aiming for European accession.
What do you believe Cyprus’s objectives to be?
As a scholar of the Cyprus issue, I believe that right now that the objectives are, unfortunately, diverse. I base this mainly on the outcome of the referendum over the Annan Plan.
Do you see the talks as leading toward a solution?
I am not close enough to the talks to have an opinion.
As a scholar of the Cyprus issue and as the man who first proposed that negotiation should be on the academic curriculum, what do you see as the biggest mistake made in the negotiation process?
There is a difference between a mistake and a crime. What happened in ’74 was a crime. Something that I see as a mistake in the Greek Cypriot’s handling of the issue from the start and to the present day is a tendency to over-negotiate.
If one studies the history of Cypriot negotiations, the Greek Cypriot side at one point refused to agree to a point that it essentially went on to demand later. That is over-negotiation.
What does it tell us?
I don’t have the gift of psychological analysis.
Does it show a lack of knowledge of history?
It shows a misperception of history.
Did you know Makarios?
Yes, I met Makarios on the sidelines of talks at the United Nations. I also met Grivas when he was getting ready to publish his memoirs. Both conversations were very restricted in terms of time, so I’m really in no position to draw conclusions. The impression I got, however, was that they were two very different people. Makarios radiated knowledge of how the world works; Grivas had Greek self-confidence.
Is the Cypriot justice system the best in the world?
I firmly believe that there is no such thing as economic problems; they are created by moral problems, which, in turn, are embodied in the rules of law. As a business adviser, when I want to understand the economy of a country, I start by studying some of the fundamental principles of its body of laws. Greece’s biggest problem is not its economy, but its justice system. Public debt was accrued up as a result of the laws. There may have been illegal activities involved, which may have gone unpunished because such is our justice system, but the debt was legally accrued. This would be inconceivable in the context of the Cypriot legal system. The late prosecutor Kriton Tornaritis is, in my opinion, the unsung hero of Cyprus. He took the basics of English law and endowed them with the flexibility of the Greek spirit. The miracle of the Cypriot economy is due to its unique competitiveness that ensures Cyprus justice as designed by Tornaritis.
Do you think we are negatively influenced by Greek role models?
The tendency to exhibit one’s wealth rather than virtues must have begun somewhere, and I think it was in Athens. What we should be very wary of is becoming infected again by the biggest Greek ailment of all. Something I worry about every day, and I’m embarrassed about, is that all of us, as a people, find it easier to attack one another when we face a problem from the outside. This was the case in the 1921 War of Independence, after World War II and in Cyprus in 1974, and I’m afraid that it is festering today. This is the illness of our people.
Is there a cure?
Some wrongly sold and others wrongly bought the European Economic Community as a medicine.
What is the medicine today?
This is fundamentally a psychological issue. I am no expert in psychology, but I do know that the only way to deal with psychological barriers quickly is to apply reason to them. Our nation has with reason the same problem that Romania had with petrol. Romania was the biggest oil exporter in the world before World War II. But it exported so much oil that it had none left. In order for problems to be solved, reason needs to be brought back. The tools are very simple; we need to learn how to read again and to listen to one another. Finally, we need to relearn the logical significance of simple mathematical equations. One plus one is two. We shouldn’t settle for 1.5 or imagine that it could be 11.
“Beautiful and strange country”: What does that make you think of?
The verse brings two thoughts to mind: one positive and one critical. The positive thought is that the Greek civilization, as it is represented in Elytis’s verse, is greater that Hellenism as a political entity and far greater that Hellenism as an economic entity. The critical thought is that the time has come to deal with our country’s problems with pragmatism and not poetic sentimentalism. I love Seferis because wherever else he was, he ached for Greece. The difference between me and Seferis is that during the 35 years I was away, everywhere I went I would get angry at how far we had fallen. I wanted us to have a better Greece one day, one which I could contribute to by coming back. And this is what I did.
What does endurance mean to you?
A psychological substitute.
Where were you on July 20, 1974?
I began the day crying, listening to the radio. When my parents went to bed, I took a rifle that was in my father’s closet and went to Larissis Station to enlist. At some point, I was arrested because I was armed and they made me present myself to an army officer. He told me to go home because they didn’t need me, and he congratulated me for my philhellenism. That term made an impression on me, because I was never a philhellene; I’m a Hellene, a Greek.
A Greek anti-communist…
I would never call myself an anti-communist.
You have been accused of being one, however.
I visited [Greek Communist Party leader Aleka] Papariga within the first week that I was in Greece. I learned a lot from her and we talked about my communist relatives. I was accused because I said, and I repeat, that I was against the Soviet Union. But, as you know, about 95% of western European communists are anti-Soviet.
Why were you against the USSR?
I don’t apologize for it because the fact is that the Soviet regime, irrespectively of its intentions at times, left behind a shambles, in humanitarian and economic terms.
Didn’t capitalism leave shambles behind it?
I was among the most vocal critics of American policy, not just in Cyprus, but elsewhere as well. I don’t just feel a lot of pain, but also shame at the things that Bush did. But there is a difference. When I say I was anti-Soviet, I mean that I was a democrat. What I believe about capitalism has taken me 35 years to put down in detail. But capitalism, as it is practiced today, is a primitive economic system. Gain without purpose, and moral purpose especially, is very primitive and inexcusable in 21st century society.
I feel rich because my life has been full of experiences
You are established as one of the leading gurus/philosophers of strategic management. What does this entail?
Strategic management is a marriage between strategy and the study of the management team. Classic management, as I was taught it, was about telling businesses what they needed to do to become more competitive. I believe that this can’t be done without knowing the people who run any given business, organization or state, and which objectives they really want to serve.
In your book “Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies,” you said that you championed the “commercial use” of American F-16 fighters in Greece.
I didn’t champion it; I made it happen. At the time I was the program director of the company that manufactured them and there was an enormous reaction from the American side toward these very advanced jets being delivered to Greece because Andreas Papandreou was Prime Minister. I believed that rather than having Greek pilots venturing out over the Aegean in third-generation craft while Turkish fighter pilots were in fourth-generation craft was suicidal, so I did everything I could to allow Greece to use the funds from America’s so-called aid program in order to modernize its Air Force. I’m quite proud of that accomplishment.
Do you regret any of your choices?
None that was very important. I gave a lot of thought to important decisions. Anyway, conditions required as much. I could, maybe, have made a lot more money. I could have succeeded in working less. But I feel rich because my life has been full of experiences. If someone gave me 100 million euros to retire tomorrow, I would choose to continue working and learning new things until my final day.
How do you feel when you read negative comments and criticism?
I first like to understand what they’re saying. Many of my friends think I’m naïve because I can’t spot the conspiracy behind some of the things that are written. I have one rule in life, and that’s never to put down to a conspiracy something that can easily be put down to stupidity.
How does one gauge success: By position, influence, wealth, social contribution or inner tranquility?
Success is a mechanistic concept. The word “tranquility,” which is a modern take on serenity, is, I think, the real answer. There is a particular method through which people can achieve tranquility or serenity: The courage to change the things they can, the humility to accept that there are some things they cannot change and the wisdom to be able to tell the difference.
The Greek National Opera is a vessel of Greek culture
Better known abroad than in Greece, from Athens to Harvard, you have paved the way for a career that has seen you in leading management positions at large multinational corporations. You have lived in almost every great capital city in the world and have built your own company. Did you leave all that behind for the sake of the Greek National Opera?
My daughter, with whom I had a long discussion before making a decision, told me that there are moments when even the most rational person does not have the luxury of choice, because duty comes first.
Was it the challenge of scoring another success or a yearning to return?
I visited Greece almost every month for 35 years. Almost everyone talked about things that I have no interest in. I never dreamed about having a big house and expensive cars. Suddenly, the things I was interested in became the focus of discourse in Greece. So, it was an opportunity to return, because finally I felt that I shared something in common with my fellow-Greeks.
Greece is about to experience a decade of reconstruction. I have spent the last 20 years of my life helping reconstruct businesses, organizations and states. I think I can be of help.
You have stated: “I am a realist and demand the impossible.” Did you achieve the impossible with your return to Greece?
I think so. When I arrived, the GNO was looking at cessation of operations and bankruptcy. The GNO today is fully operational.
What else are you satisfied with?
What satisfies me is that in the first 10 months of managing the GNO we have achieved results; first that the Greek National is open and second that an effort is being made. My associates and I have gone to great pains to completely erase the primary deficit. There is still a lot still to be done at the GNO. But, if it manages not to go back to its old ways, it will have a clean balance sheet forever. Our country has traveled a very difficult path in order to achieve this goal for the future. The GNO, which is a microcosm of Greece, achieved that in just 10 months.
Isn’t it a luxury to invest in culture when you are fighting for survival?
That is an argument I comprehend but with which I do not agree. The GNO is a vessel of our culture. Culture also means diversification. Without diversification you cannot really have competition; where there is no national state there is no Greece. If I did not fight for the GNO and so many other people did not fight for the GNO it would be like going to stock market and betting against the existence of Greece.
The Greek National Opera is not a business, and art is not the affair of man, it is the creation of the human spirit. How far can business objectives dominate cultural objectives?
If the GNO did not produce a top-notch cultural product it would have to go. I consider the caliber of the company a non-negotiable given. The question is to achieve this while still respecting the taxpayers’ money.
Is this why you turned to Greek opera artists?
I believe that Greek opera artists do not have their proper place in the international, but also in the domestic market. This means that we have to use Greek artists, including Cypriots, as much as possible. We are proud to have Cypriots in leading positions at the GNO.
Is collaboration between the GNO and Cyprus on the books?
Nothing would please me more, even the GNO’s return to Epidaurus, which is something I really want, than serving Cypriot Hellenism. We recently received a proposal to work in Cyprus. I believe that everyone at the GNO would jump at the chance, if our finances allowed it and if we found a sponsor who could cover some of the costs.
You are chairman of the GNO, yet you don’t receive a salary?
Yes. I confess that does present certain personal difficulties and maybe it’s unbelievable, even suspicious, for some. This position is, by law, unsalaried. So, I need to try to combine it with something else that will help me earn a living.
Why have you agreed to this?
One day that really shaped me was September 14, 1969. That was when it was announced that I earned the top marks at national university entrance exams. I did very well in Ancient Greek, Latin and History because these are subjects that you either know or you don’t. So, everything came down to an essay which we had to defend orally. I think I came first because the subject of the essay was something I had been taught by my father before I even went to school. It was on a saying by Korais that went “whatever the worthy citizen does for his country he does out of a debt to his country, with no hope of reward.”
|A word from the director of Opera Europa|
‘Can anything perk up Europe?’ That headline on the cover of a recent issue of The Economist received ‘an unfashionably optimistic answer’ from its thoughtful leading article inside. ‘Yes: the European Union will thrive if its leaders seize the moment in the same way they did 20 years ago…There is nothing ordained about Europe’s failure. Indeed, if EU leaders show a little courage, this crisis offers the best chance at revival since the 1980s’. Yet, it continues that ‘the single market remains half built’ and quotes Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, in 2007: ‘We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it’.
Are opera companies likewise too timid? Or does it take a really serious financial crisis to embolden them? Nikos Mourkogiannis, recently appointed Chairman and Managing Director of Greek National Opera, has embarked on a radical restructuring programme which is regarded as emblematic in his country. At its autumn conference in Munich, Opera Europa will explore this and other examples of how opera might develop in the future.
- The True Purpose of the Board
- Purpose: The Search for Strategic Alignment
- The Return in HR from Purpose
- Purpose-Led Planning & Strategy Execution
- An Interview with Nikos
- Using Purpose to Drive Innovation
- Thinking on Purpose
- Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Leadership
- The Search for Purpose
- Four Routes to Success
- Purposeful Leadership