FiveBooks: Alastair Campbell on Leadership and Winning

February 08, 2011
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A leading thinker recommends five books about their field of interest. This month, the topic is Leadership and Winning, with books chosen by Tony Blair’s former director of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham LincolnDoris Kearns Goodwin

This is just about the best book on politics I’ve ever read. You have to be a bit careful with somebody like Lincoln because there is such mass of material out there, but what Doris Kearns Goodwin has managed to do is to give it a freshness and a depth that is very rare—it’s an unputdownable historical account.

The whole idea about leadership, I think, is not just about the leader, but about the team that you build and how you use the different skills of the people around you. And there are an awful lot of lessons in Lincoln’s story for people in politics today.

Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World Mikhail Gorbachev

The reason I wanted to pick this book is that politicians with really big ideas are still the means by which a huge amount of change in the world is driven. It is fabulous that two Russian words, perestroika and glasnost, entered the global language as a result of one leader, Gorbachev, deciding he wanted to change his country.

[When it came out] I think I reviewed it and I remember thinking: this is a big figure and a big moment. But reading it now you think, wow—the world has changed so much, the former Eastern Bloc has changed so much, and a lot of it is because of this man, and you can see this book as such a building block towards it.

Bodyline Autopsy David Frith

Leadership most obviously counts in politics, but it’s also very important in sport. And the reason I chose BodylineAutopsy is because this is the nearest you’ll get to cricket history. Frith has talked to everybody, read everything, looked at everything from every possible angle and has then written what is probably a very fair and balanced account of the most extraordinary Ashes series ever.

I think politics can learn a lot from sport and sport can learn a lot from politics. And I think business can learn a lot from both.

Every Second CountsLance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins

This book, although it’s Lance Armstrong’s own story and very personal, is also about team building. Because it describes how after cancer, and having already won the Tour de France once, Armstrong built himself and the team around him. I’ve interviewed him a few times and he is an extraordinary bloke: he has got this absolutely driven thing that you need to win in the modern age. He said to me when I interviewed him the first time: “Dying and losing are the same thing.”

I think that sometimes fear of losing, fear of defeat, whether in sport, in politics, in business, is what forces you to go really deep into yourself and find the reserves that you need. In a boxing match, sometimes you can see where the guy who is losing summons up reserves of energy and skill and power, and he overturns the other.

Alone in BerlinHans Fallada

I chose this book because I wanted to have political leadership, sporting leadership and a novel to demonstrate moral leadership. This is the story of a very, very ordinary couple whose son is killed fighting in the war; the dad then starts writing anti-Nazi postcards and leaves them in stairwells. It sounds mundane, but it is extraordinarily fraught, because it’s a police state and you’re not allowed to criticise the regime. I picked it out for a leadership theme because it’s about a very ordinary couple doing a very extraordinary thing—and it is based on a true story. The couple are not presented as heroic figures; they are just doing one thing that is incredibly brave, and so they emerge at the end with extraordinary nobility.

Read this interview in full at The Browser's FiveBooks section