What makes a winner?

Pete Marcus

27 Feb 2015

What makes someone a winner? That was the question that Alastair Campbell sought to answer in his new book, Winners and How They Succeed. He spoke about the book, alongside former BP CEO Lord Browne, at an FT event this week. Regardless of what you think about Campbell as a person or as a political figure, he is always a compelling speaker with strong opinions and a down-to-earth sense of humour. (You can see why Tony Blair thought he’d be an effective politician in his own right.) His diagnosis for winning sounds simple on paper – a clear strategy, great teamwork in which everyone knows their job, and outstanding leadership – but of course it’s anything but. It’s surprising, Campbell said, how many leaders in business and politics don’t have a clear strategy. They bumble along, responding to one momentary crisis or tactical distraction after another. That temptation is even greater in a world of social media where Twitter storms can pull you away from what’s really important (in Campbell’s phrase, “the pressures of the modern world on leaders are to be more tactical”). Campbell’s mantra is equally simple: “OST” – objectives, strategy, tactics. Work out what you want to achieve and work backwards to understand the strategy to get there and the tactics that will support that. The OST mantra is familiar to us in the communications industry but it applies, Campbell argues, across all businesses, political campaigns and sports teams. In the case of New Labour the objective was to win after years in opposition. The strategy was modernisation. The tactics were aggressively focused on anything that communicated that modernisation message (and, equally, anything that didn’t support that message was dropped). When Lord Browne came on stage he and Campbell discussed what business and politics can learn from each other. What winning habits can be shared between them? Lord Browne argued that politics used to think it was where policy was developed but others would deliver it; now it’s realised it has to be about effective delivery too. Both Browne and Campbell agreed that politics has more to learn from business than vice versa – but both have more to learn from sport. No field of endeavour focuses more definitively on winning, and maybe that’s sport’s secret.