Campbell's recipe for success

Tony Blair's former spin doctor probes a wide range of high achievers on their secrets in Winners and How they Succeed, but, despite his enthusiasm, beyond politics the insights are few, says John McLaren.

by John McLaren
Last Updated: 29 Sep 2015

At 520 pages, this is a doorstop of a book. It reminded me of a monster box of Maltesers... light, tasty, definitely moreish, but not exactly substantial.

There is a well-ploughed furrow in suggesting what practitioners in one walk of life can learn from those in others. So conductors can tell us how to work together, soldiers can teach us how to be selfless and tough things out, and sport stars can show how to set and achieve goals.

Alastair Campbell sets out to identify the traits shared by 'winners' from fields including politics, sport, business, journalism and finance (the creative arts are presumably a winner-free zone). To this end, he has interviewed the famous in droves. There won't be many dropped jaws over his findings. Winners are bold and ambitious, they focus, are resilient, avoid complacency, learn from their mistakes, aim for constant improvement, shape good teams and hate losing.

His own mantra is OST - objective, strategy, tactics. An example he gives of this is Bill Clinton after being caught in flagrante Lewinsky. Objective: survival; strategy: business as usual; tactics: ensuring that the American people know that you're doing business as usual. It worked pretty well. But trying to apply this to other fields can get the author in a tangle, as when Jose Mourinho tells him that, in football, tactics are the long-term plan, and strategy is made up on the hoof.

There is a very clear hierarchy in the quality of the contributions. Unsurprisingly, he's at his best when drawing on his political experience. There's an interesting chapter on how Modi got elected in India. Campbell has no hesitation in declaring Angela Merkel the smartest 'winner' among European politicians. He scores Putin highly on O and S and, apparently, even on tactics when he relates how the Russian deepens and slows his voice when speaking to Merkel (to remind her subliminally of Stasi thugs) and (aware of her childhood phobia) brings a fierce dog to their meetings. I'm sure she shudders at the time, but if she then goes home thinking 'Get Shorty' and ratchets up the sanctions, this may be less than brilliant Ts. There is a nice cameo about Edi Rama (the Albanian prime minister, not a Hare Krishna chant). He is evidently the only world leader (sic) in office now who represented his country at sport. The author politely refrains from pointing out that, in the Soviet era, if you lived in a country of only three million and were nearly two metres tall, you probably got drafted into the national basketball team whether you liked it or not.

The sport parts of the book come a clear second. He is famously a big sport fan, but that's the problem - he's too much of a fan. So we hear how the Fergusons, Linekers, Jordans, Tendulkars, etc, etc, etc became so great, but (Lance Armstrong excepted) there is little discussion of why it sometimes falls apart - as is happening with Tiger Woods. It all reads too much like potted extracts from the stars' own memoirs.

The business section brings up the rear. Lazily, he features the usual suspects - Buffett, Welch, Jobs, Branson, etc. It's also inconsistent - he criticises Jobs for taking all the credit for his company's success, but not Branson, who obviously does the same. One interesting factlet he uncovers is that Branson planned to call his record company Slipped Disc and the Virgin name was counterproposed by a girl in the office. Campbell briefly admonishes Branson for not acknowledging this in his memoirs, but is easily satisfied by the explanation that the great man cannot be expected to remember everyone he worked or slept with.

The shining exception to the relative weakness of the business part is the superb account of Willie Walsh's handling of the debacle that was the launch of Terminal 5. This fits nicely with (equally interesting) accounts of the crises Blair and Campbell had to deal with, such as the attacks on the Twin Towers, foot and mouth and the fuel delivery strike.

The invisible thread running through the book is survival. Sportsmen fear losing more than they enjoy winning. New Labour's project may have been built on sand, but the party was brilliant at hanging on to office. And the person who is by far the most quoted is Arsene Wenger, who has never seemed more than a bronze medal hope, but has shown skill in keeping his job. Perhaps Campbell is now showing a similar instinct for survival. We know he has fangs, but it makes little sense to bite the hands that might feed you. Anyway, Maltesers taste better.

Winners and How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell is published by Hutchinson at £16

John McLaren is the chairman of the Barchester Group, a non-executive director of several companies in the UK and US and a novelist

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