Winners and the Holy Trinity

Alastair Campbell's bestseller ‘Winners: And how they succeed’ and what he has to say about success in the modern world

Alistair Campbell
Alistair Campbell

With Athens, Warsaw, Lisbon and Madrid more or less following the same path, one is not only inclined to examine populism as a standalone subject but rather as a symptom of what many are rightly or wrongly blaming on German driven eurozone austerity policies.

In my opinion it is also a result of a problem of leadership, or lack of it. It is all about some of the important lessons that can and should be learnt from the recent Alastair Campbell bestseller ‘Winners: And how they succeed’.

Something that starts off like a self-help book only to end up telling us much (even if arguably not enough that it is completely new) about such varied success stories as Barack Obama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jose Mourinho, Angela Merkel, Jack Welch, Warren Buffett, Bono, Nelson Mandela, Arianna Huffington, Tony Blair, Lionel Messi, Kevin Spacey and Alex Ferguson among others.

One might argue – how does the Holy Trinity feature in the equation in the art of winning?

It does indeed because ‘Winners’ is not just about winners but also about how to succeed. And the Holy Trinity is all about the key three foremost components and ingredients of success: Strategy, Leadership and Teamship.

For the author, strategy is ‘God’. In the sense that it is why it has to come first in the Holy Trinity itself. Campbell did not set out to offend believers when saying so, but merely to stress the importance of strategy to achieving success. In reality, for him strategy comes first, last and always. Particularly since one can have all the talent and ambitions one may need, but without clear strategy, understood by everyone from the top of the organisation to the bottom, the ambition will not be fulfilled.

Campbell equates strategy with God because to his mind it is open to different interpretations and so has become one of the most misused words and concepts.

Ever since 1994 the three keywords on the inside cover of his notebooks have been O for objective, S for strategy and T for tactics. Constantly shifting between the two glorious worlds of politics and sport (mainly soccer), the author explains that getting to where you want to end up doesn’t automatically entail ‘winning’ pure and simple, particularly since winning requires definition, or, at least, calibration, according to circumstances. A typical case in point is a struggling football team that might start the season with the objective not of winning every match, but of avoiding relegation. Deciding where and how to set the bar applies to personal performance too.

When the author took up running in his 40s, he needed motivation to ‘win’ against the clock, against himself, against people of his age and standard.

One running theme of the book is the importance of clarity of thinking, particularly when upon having decided what one’s objective is, one needs to put in place the strategy to achieve it.

The confusion of strategy with tactics can and often does prove to be lethal while also being a common mistake that must simply be best avoided. A Campbell book that does not draw on the Blair government experience would be half-empty. With this in mind he vividly recalls how in the political sphere the Blair campaign team felt an almost visceral fear of failure, and a belief, right up until election day, that it could happen whatever the polls said. But this fear of failure, according to Campbell, made them more, not less, ambitious about their objectives.

Good strategies can sometimes be almost breathtakingly basic and straightforward but such clarity of thought is not that easily won. He praises the Steve Jobs approach in particular because apart from being brilliant at drilling down to the essentials, it looks within, discovers what is wrong, and establishes a strategy to fix it.

Nothing beats Campbell’s philosophy about it all. If you do not have a clear objective, you have no definition of winning. If you do not have a clear strategy, you have no chance of winning. And if all you have are tactics, you have no right to win. 

Although never a Jack Welch buff I know many in the corporate sector who must have lapped up every book that he wrote. In his autobiography he wrote: “When it comes to peering into the future, you just can’t be paranoid enough...”

Angela Merkel often seems in some ways an unlikely leader of the EU’s most powerful nation-state, particularly since she lacks Obama’s soaring rhetoric or Clinton’s charisma, and is often known to “place pragmatism ahead of grand gestures, and values political and administrative competence above bold statements about changing the world.” According to the author she does not enjoy big set-piece speeches. And she does not inspire outbursts of hysterical enthusiasm. 

In other words, she resembles a competent manager rather than a great leader.

One would definitely not speak of her in the same breath, as say, an Abraham Lincoln or a Nelson Mandela. And yet she is a winner by any yardstick, and is also rare in modern politics in being both successful and widely respected. By public opinion and by her peers. 

Another telling Campbell lesson is that it is very hard to excel, if one’s mind is in the comfort zone. Pressure is a word usually heard negatively but conversely, the angers of avoiding pressure are there for anyone to see: complacency and stagnation. This had led to Garry Kasparov’s downfall: The feeling of being invincible when at a very high peak. Not only did this make him complacent, but it also meant that he had ceased to grow in areas that he did not require to win. In reality it was precisely because he was winning, that he should have kept up the pressure.

Most of these conclusions seem almost over simplistic and far too obvious. But on the other hand the comfort of previous victory can also prove to be toxic. This is a book about team effort, leadership, resilience, decision-making and all the other things that go to make political winners.

On the other hand it is a must-read for those who rightly or wrongly think they are poor at strategy, campaigns, communications and crisis management.

I am sure that meanwhile Mr Campbell will once again laugh all the way to the bank as he did with his famous ‘Diaries’, as well as his engrossing ‘The Happy Depressive: In Pursuit of Personal and Political Happiness’.

What is interesting is that when Campbell wrote ‘Winners’, Jose Mourinho was at his peak. When he last wrote about him he had just been dumped by Chelsea.

His lesson then remains his mantra even today: Teams without strategy fail. Teams without good leaders fail. Leaders without strategy fail. Leaders without teamship operating at every level of the organisation fail. To my mind the biggest blunder is when people like Mourinho seemed unconvinced there was much difference between strategy and tactics, or that teamship is subservient to leadership.

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