Leadership lessons from Tony Blair

The former British prime minister on why communication is key, the world beyond coronavirus and how he would handle the crisis.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 10 Jun 2020
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Food for thought

While opinions may differ on his legacy, there are few political leaders in UK history with the longevity of Tony Blair.

The only Labour leader to win three consecutive elections, Blair spent a decade in office. Since leaving government in 2005, he has held various diplomatic, academic and private sector advisory roles. In 2017 he founded the umbrella organisation The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which works with governments around the world to devise social and governance policy. 

Speaking at the virtual CogX Festival, in conversation with Jacqueline de Rojas, president of techUK, Blair shared his views on crisis communication, why leaders need to look outwards and the importance of life-long learning. Although he was speaking in the context of global leadership, he offers pertinent food for thought for business leaders nonetheless. 

On decision-making during COVID

“This is the most difficult challenge governments have ever faced. I have huge sympathy for those taking decisions right now. It is unique in its consequences and in how it presents government with really difficult decisions around risk; not just the risk of the disease itself but the economic and social risks of the lockdown. It is immensely difficult to formulate the right calculus of risk and then implement it. 

“This is a situation that everyone’s interests are best served by coming together. Coming together to coordinate global economic policy, share the best practice for what works and how to reopen industries." 

On communication, communication, communication

“Communication [in a crisis] is vital. People are wrestling with two fears. On the one hand we know enough about the disease to know you don’t want to get it, yet at the same time only a very small proportion of people will be adversely affected. So you’re locking down everyone in order to protect a small number of people. That is the dilemma decision makers are wrestling with, and why it’s important to communicate how you’re making those decisions. 

“Events like 9/11 or the global financial crash were global talking points but almost everyone was able to carry on with their daily lives in a reasonably predictable way. The difference between this pandemic and other global disasters is that everyone is affected. 

“So there is an enormous interest in the disease. Therefore it is even more important for decision makers to take people into their confidence in order to build confidence.” 

On upskilling, now

“All of the problems that were present before COVID are going to be there after COVID, just accelerated and more vivid. One of those is the use of technology. The digital divide between those that can use tech well and those that can’t is going to be a big source of difficulty. 

“A lot of people will be training during this period, using it as an opportunity to reskill. There are many people who will be going out into businesses that have changed forever. I cannot see the hospitality and travel industry coming back very fast, I think bricks-and-mortar retail has probably had its day - certainly in its present form. In any event it’s going to be a necessity to be equipping people with what they need - make it a virtue." 

On the gap between the change makers and the policy setters

“The technology revolution is the 21st century equivalent of the industrial revolution, it will change the way we think, the way we live, the way we do commerce and our business. There is also a risk that they’ll be a divide between the change makers and the policy makers. 

“The thing that is going to be interesting is whether the government itself can change. A lot of people running businesses understand that they have to change, otherwise they’ll go out of business. The problem with government is that the toughest things are one, getting things done. And two, that government’s don’t like change. Bureaucracies have a genius for inertia but not momentum for change. 

“We’ve been driven by necessity to do things differently, let's see how we can continue to do things differently. We've got to make sure that government itself takes some of these considerations into its internal system, otherwise you’ll find that business continues to move faster than government." 

On the future beyond COVID

“The problem with politics is that at the very moment that the world needs practical solutions, the politics on the right and the left has gone heavily ideological. The trouble is not just that what you’re trying to solve is driven by your values, but the solutions themselves are often practical and require a form of working between the private and public sector where there is a genuine spirit to solve problems. 

“I can’t be sure what will happen afterwards but there should be a huge focus on government and businesses working together. There will be a strong desire for social change and they’ll be far less tolerance for inequality and injustice - but you’ve got to solve them with policies that work." 

If he were in government now

"I’d be focusing this around the technology revolution and ensuring that each individual component of government and their relationship with business works in a different way. It will require bringing people with a different skill set into government - we’ve got a very stratified civil service."

One piece of advice for leaders

“Harness technology for the greater good. All of these problems we want to solve, whether it be social injustice or economic opportunity, depend on knowing the world within which you’re going to be existing. That is a world that is going to transformed by technology.”

Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe / Stringer via Getty Images

(Note: The picture accompanying this piece is from December 2019 - not from Blair's virtual appearance at CogX)


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