A never-ending story of leadership
‘WHEN I SET OUT to write this book I had no intention of writing a self-help manual,” admits Gavin Esler. The BBC Newsnight presenter is in Dublin promoting his book Lessons from the Top.
Subtitled “How Successful Leaders tell Stories to get Ahead and Stay There”, it draws heavily on his work as a foreign correspondent and is liberally seasoned with stories of the famous and the powerful. With summaries of the key learning points at the end of each chapter, Esler, unwittingly or not, has produced a volume that fits neatly into the management section of the bookshelves.
The majority of the subjects covered in his book come from the political sphere. Nonetheless, Esler draws parallels between the successful approach of politicians and what it takes to succeed in other areas of leadership, including business. The common denominator is a capacity to build empathy and following through the narratives they weave.
“Successful leaders tell stories. The stories are who am I, who are we, what’s our common purpose and where is my leadership going to take us,” he says.
Chatty and affable, Esler is no stranger to Ireland. Born in Glasgow he spent many of his formative years in Northern Ireland and his first job in journalism was with the Belfast Telegraph, before joining the BBC. He returns here regularly to spend time with relatives in Co Limerick as a break from the noise of London and has an easy familiarity with Irish media and politics.
His stint as BBC Chief Correspondent in North American proved to be a key reference point for the book. The cult of personality is personified in US politicians. He sees common purpose in the positioning and messages of the likes of Sarah Palin, George W Bush, Colin Powell and Ross Perot. All attempt to paint themselves as ordinary “done-well” Americans, with strong family values and high patriotism.
Massaging the message is fair game. George W Bush shook off his privileged New England background by portraying himself as a down on the ranch Texan. The cowboy image played well with those who mattered to him.
Glossing over who you are is not confined to America, either. Before 9/11 Osama Bin Laden was cultivating an image of a simple cave-dwelling scholar belying his prosperous origins, while David Cameron has also tried
to underplay his Etonian privileged upbringing in an attempt to empathise with followers.
Esler is an admirer of the communications guile of Alastair Campbell. He tells the story of how Campbell masterfully opened a speech to a highly suspicious business audience. The spin doctor recounted a tale of how while jogging in a London park he came to the assistance a man who was semi-conscious on the ground. When the man recovered and appeared to recognise him, he introduced himself as Tony Blair’s press secretary. “I knew it,” said the man on the ground. “Alastair Campbell! I effing hate you!”