Andrew Marr’s six rules of leadership

IMG_3509A friend invited me to Steria UK’s Great Minds dinner at Simpsons on the Strand. It was an interesting and enjoyable evening, not least because the after dinner speaker was political commentator Andrew Marr. I knew Andrew from my days as a reporter in the House of Commons. He was editor of The Independent, and we often sat next to each other in the press gallery in the optimistic early days of Tony Blair’s New Labour government. It was great to meet Andrew again 17 years later. The time gap disappeared instantly; we fell straight into conversation – about politics, of course – and he was as forthright and insightful as ever.

Andrew gave us a short talk about politics, which included six rules of leadership. Although these are derived from 30 years of observing and commentating on political leadership, they apply equally to business – or anything really. Still a reporter at heart, I jotted them down:

  1. Know what you are for. Margaret Thatcher made mistakes, but she knew what she stood for. While David Cameron is effective at running his office and getting things done, he is uncertain about what he stands for, which is why people don’t believe in him.
  2. Make enemies – at all costs! Tony Blair at one point tried to be friends with The Guardian and The Telegraph. He wanted everyone to like him. He pretended to agree with everyone, but journalists talk among themselves, and in the end nobody agreed with him. If you’re not prepared to offend some people, you will take your business nowhere. David Cameron has promised to negotiate with the EU concerning the free movement of people – a concept which is fundamental to the EU. He won’t manage it. He has to decide whether he really wants to take the UK out of Europe.
  3. Speak English! This means making sure that people understand what you mean. While John Prescott’s grammar was at best incomprehensible, we all knew what he was saying. Ed Milliband apparently has better people skills than David Cameron, but he is intensely unpopular because he avoids answering questions. This is a common trait among politicians, and it is also how they lose people’s trust.
  4. Keep people cheerful! Boris Johnson is underestimated because he plays the buffoon, but his ability to make people laugh underpins his popularity and his success. Andrew recalls watching him deliberately messing up his hair before Question Time! Nigel Farage has garnered immense support because he is likeable, even though in Andrew’s opinion (and mine) he is not a political leader because he has only one idea. Alex Salmond is another single-issue politician who has shifted public opinion (in Scotland) significantly. They keep people cheerful and that engages people and keeps their attention. Andrew asked: “Is UKIP popular because of Nigel Farage’s pint?”
  5. Practice selective deafness. This means not letting critics – or twitter trolls – affect you. John Major was famously upset by criticism and this only encouraged his detractors. This references back to points 2 and 3. If you are a genuine leader, you will know what you stand for and be able to communicate this, but this means not everyone will agree with you or like you.
  6. Get out quick! Margaret Thatcher always vowed to get out quick, but ultimately she stayed too long and faced a public humiliating demise. Tony Blair, on the other hand,  quit at the top. Many politicians are remembered for their leadership skills because they left quietly and their glory years were not dimmed by years of public failure.

Andrew’s closing words were a warning – that businesses and individuals have to get involved in politics beyond making trivial criticisms on social media and elsewhere. If we are unhappy with politicians, or the government, we should replace them. The danger is that we shall face the extreme political and economic consequences of doing nothing.

Thanks are due to Steria UK.

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