Book review

Book review: “Lessons from the top” by Gavin Esler

I noticed this book in the library and was interested in it for two reasons, firstly because it was written by a well-respected Scottish political journalist, and secondly because it deals with the fascinating subject of what makes a successful leader.

Lessons from the top by Gavin Esler
“Lessons from the top” by Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler has spent most of his adult life observing and reporting on the doings of politicians, both in the UK and overseas. He served as the BBC’s Chief American Correspondent during the Bush and Clinton administrations, and his insights into life at the top of American politics are particularly revealing.

Through his work he has interviewed a wide range of successful, and not so successful, leaders. Having made a detailed study of what it is that separates success from failure, he has collated his findings in this book and produced what I found to be a frequently insightful and rewarding read. 

As suggested by the subtitle, “The three universal stories that all successful leaders tell”, Esler has distilled the wisdom he’s gained into three essential parts. In his opinion, every successful leader must provide convincing answers to the following questions:

1. Who am I? (the kind of person the leader is)
2. Who are we? (the type of people who follow the leader)
3. Where will my leadership take us? (the common purpose of leader and followers)

Interestingly, Esler makes the point that if one part of the story falls short of people’s expectations it can be remedied, but only if the other parts are strong.

Many successful leaders have had to work hard on the answer to question 1, ‘who am I?’, following potentially damaging and disastrous events. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton experienced serious wobbles on the ‘who am I?’ question during their time in the White House, but both were sufficiently skilled at telling the right sorts of stories to enable them to survive situations that could easily have destroyed their careers.

In contrast to leaders who have successfully survived potential ruin, Esler cites a few who failed to do so. One of those was Gordon Brown, Britain’s Prime Minister from 2007-2010.

Unlike that of his predecessor, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown’s leadership was not marked by the skillful telling of stories. In fact, the author argues that Gordon Brown successfully avoided every opportunity that came his way to tell a good story. Esler offers a selection of stories Gordon Brown could have told about himself that would have endeared him to the public. These include the fact that he lost the sight in one eye as a result of injury during a rugby match, how he fell in love late in life and married a warm and intelligent woman when he was 49, how their first child died of a brain haemorrhage a few days after she was born, and one of the other two children they went on to have was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at a few months old.

In the hands of a more accomplished storyteller, Esler argues that many of Brown’s experiences could have been worked into the ‘who am I?’ narrative to make people sympathetic towards him. Instead, Gordon Brown chose to downplay many aspects of his life, and was generally regarded as a dour and stodgy man who was out of touch with the people.

I think I would have enjoyed this book regardless of the political climate I was reading it in, but reading it over the past weeks has been a particularly enlightening business. Even before the result of the referendum that saw the UK vote to leave the European Union last Friday, it was fascinating to watch the various leaders putting forward their views on the subject. Since then, the UK parliament has been in disarray, with the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigning after backing the losing side, and the opposition Labour Party being thrown into chaos after half of the Shadow Cabinet resigned in protest against their leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

I’ve never seen such a jostling for leadership in British politics, happening on both sides of the political establishment at the same time. Now, when I see a prospective Party leader step up to give their views on how the country should move forward, I can’t help thinking about their pitches in terms of the three stories they’re trying to tell. As Gavin Esler has so helpfully informed me, each leadership candidate is concerned with selling him/herself to us with answers to the vital questions of ‘who am I?’, ‘who are we?’ and ‘where will my leadership take us?’.

Each candidate is telling their version of these stories in order to make us view them in a certain light. Their hope is that what we take away from them is something we feel we can connect with and believe in. Are they telling us the truth about themselves? If not, does it matter, or is it more important that we get a leader we like the sound of, someone whose stories are stories we want to hear?

When it comes to politicians I think I feel much the same as most voters, i.e. that very few politicians are completely honest and trustworthy, particularly when they get into positions of power. Top politicians are often accused of being devious, insincere, over-ambitious and self-seeking, but history proves that these characteristics are not necessarily a bar to successful leadership. Any leader may have some or all of these qualities, but the ability to tell compelling stories can, in some cases, outweigh virtually any downsides.


2 thoughts on “Book review: “Lessons from the top” by Gavin Esler

  1. How very interesting, Lorna. And it couldn’t come at a better time! I remember Gavin Esler from his BBC reporting, so I can imagine how good this book must be. I love the principle of the three questions that he puts forward, and it’s interesting to see how they apply. That’s a valid point about Gordon Brown. The thing is, that the very thing that might make someone likeable in a one-to-one relationship might work against them when seen by the public as a whole. So therefore, any reluctance to spout about your personal details / traumas / sadness / health (or lack of it), will be seen by the public and the media as a negative, whereas for many people it is something very personal and private, and really the public should respect this (well, I think we do, it’s the media that stirs it all up). And the ‘stories’ that these figures tell must come from their heart, so any falsehoods are going to trip them up at some stage; I often think that Prime Ministers and Presidents often come out with the most wisdom after they have resigned from office (or been booted out). The great political figures from history – people you can think of like Churchill, Gladstone, Disraeli – however popular or unpopular they were, they all had a vision that they deeply believed in. Conveying this to the public at large must be the secret. How right you are about the current situation – I don’t think I remember the parties ever being in such turmoil all at once. And yes, if you apply the three-point rule to the main protagonists, they fall down on at least one of them! I’m interested in particular to see how the above applies to Boris Johnson, as his career of late has taken a few unexpected twists.


    1. I agree with all of that Jo, and it’s a good point you make about wisdom coming with hindsight. After reading this book I’d quite like to read Tony Blair’s autobiography, which was mentioned several times in Gavin Esler’s book. Boris Johnson is a very interesting case when it comes to the three questions, I’d love to know what Gavin Esler makes of him.

      Liked by 1 person

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