I have to confess to being a bit of a politics nut. I’m fascinated by the stories of how people who govern manage to work together, fall out with each other, and generally try to bring change to a nation. The characters and plot twists are far more entertaining than soap operas!
They also offer great material for learning leadership lessons. Some politicians are power-hungry, others are motivated purely by public service; most are talented, some are placed in positions way above their competency. But all have something to teach us on leadership.
Four years on from the end of New Labour, I’ve read many of the books and watched enough of the TV serialisations to form an opinion on where they succeeded and failed. So here are four leadership lessons learned from the 10 year premiership of Tony Blair.
- Have a vision for what you want to achieve. This is often the biggest criticism levelled at Tony Blair. He came to power with a huge parliamentary majority in 1997, but lacked a clear vision of what he wanted to do with power. There were a few aspirations, like investing more in public services, joining the single European currency, and somehow ‘modernising’ the country. But commentators and colleagues have all commented that it was a big vague. As a leader, you’re at your most effective when you have a crystal clear vision of what it is you want to achieve. Without that, the danger is you’ll achieve nothing.
- Act boldly when your mandate is strongest. Later on in his premiership Blair came to regret the compromises he had made on key reforms he wanted to push through, in education and health policy. He was at his strongest at the beginning of his term, and should have been bolder at the beginning (once he had decided what he wanted to achieve in office) in firmly committing to the reforms he wanted.
- Build a committed small core team. This is actually where Blair excelled to a large degree. He built a small core team of people around him who believed in New Labour. I’m not talking about the Cabinet here – he famously made decisions before Cabinet, and simply had the Cabinet approve them. A Cabinet of 25 people is far too big for effective government and decision making. Blair, like Margaret Thatcher, created a smaller “kitchen cabinet” of key people he took decisions with. Members were Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell, and then perhaps Jonathan Powell and Anji Hunter. Blair was criticised for this style, especially by one inquiry that referred to his “sofa government” method of making decisions. But I would argue that government by this type of small group was one reason he was perceived as being such a strong leader.
- Confront firmly those destabilising your leadership. The rows between Blair and Brown became the stuff of Whitehall legend. From starting out as close friends they ended up barely speaking to each other, and often unable to be in the same room together. And for all the perception of Blair as a strong leader, this is where I think he showed his greatest weakness. Brown often fought Blair on policy issues, and constantly tried to undermine him. Blair should have confronted him early on, when the problems began. And ultimately, when the problems persisted, he should have sacked him. Instead, he wasted huge amounts of time and energy wondering what to do about Brown, and managed to get less done as a Prime Minister as a result.
Mark Williamson works as a director of One Rock. He’s a lay preacher and leader within the Methodist Church, author of a biography on John Wesley, and has a biography on William Wilberforce coming out in October 2014. He enjoys good films, good food, praying for London, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna. You can follow him on Twitter @markraynespark.