A never-ending story of leadership

Mon, Sep 24, 2012, 01:00

‘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!”

Disarming his audience, Campbell was using a technique call the Star (something they always remember) method. Another figure who knew the power of this approach, and how to slice some humour into it too, was Chile’s first female president Michelle Bachelet. She told Esler of her fears when appointed defence minister about controlling the army generals whose predecessors had killed her father.

“At her first meeting with them she introduced herself by saying, ’I am a woman, a socialist, divorced and agnostic. All the sins together. But we will work together very well’.

“You put yourself at a huge advantage if you can tell your story better and that applies whether you are going to the bank to ask for a loan or whether you are applying for a job.”

Not everyone does it well of course. Gordon Brown, he notes, “rarely missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. He could have capitalised on his partial sight by portraying himself as someone who had overcome adversity. He could also have shared the joy of finding love late in life and raising a family. For most of his career he seemed happy to cultivate an image of a curmudgeonly Scot and by the time he realised he needed to tell a more engaging story, it was already too late.

While authenticity is important, there is a difference between this and telling the truth. In an unguarded moment, BP’s boss Tony Hayward, for example, reflecting on the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster talked about “wanting to get my life back”, a case of where telling the truth proved fatal for his career.

Sometimes, telling the whole truth is not in people’s best interests, Esler argues. “Effective leadership demands not just authenticity but a degree of privacy. If we had known about Churchill’s doubts about winning the war, would we have fought so hard against Hitler in 1940?” he asks.

Storytelling, while essential, also has its downsides, he acknowledges. As a serious current affairs journalist, the trivialisation of the lives of political figure by some media is of concern to him. In the last British general election, for example, one party leader Nick Clegg was asked how many people he had slept with (30, he obligingly answered) while another, David Cameron, was asked how he had managed to find the time make his wife pregnant and whether he had ever been unfaithful (Christmas and ‘you’ve seen the photos, why would you?’ were the responses.)

“Journalists who ask these questions nowadays know they will probably be answered. Issues which once upon a time were seen as a peripheral part of the conversation, now are the conversation,” he says.

Lessons from the Top by Gavin Esler is published by Profile Books, €14.99