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Politics has so much to learn from business and sport in the art of winning

Posted on 21 November 2014 | 2:11pm

It is always a nice moment when the publisher sends through the final, final version of the cover of a planned new book. It is especially nice when the designer has taken an idea given by the author – I wanted all the names in my WINNERS book inside an Olympic Gold Medal – and made something far, far better. (Apologies for filling twitter timelines with pictures of it earlier, yes that’s you Fran Millar of Team Sky … even at 57, one is allowed to get excited by a book cover though.)

So as I go through the final tinkering with the copy editor next week, WINNERS is pretty much done, due to be out by the end of February. And given what is happening in politics right now, I think politicians of all hues might benefit from a close reading of it.

It started out as a guide to winning campaigns, but has evolved into something totally different. Sure, I write a little about New Labour’s three wins, and how we strategized for them. Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin make regular appearances (though she is the only one of those two on the cover, as is Mikhail Gorbachev!) Lincoln, Churchill, Mandela and Martin Luther King are in there, obviously. Bill Clinton comes up in crisis management, as a model of how to do it. Barack Obama’s campaigns get a look in, for their brilliance in using the internet and voter segmentation in particular, and I got a great insight into Narendra Modi’s stunning win in India, which is why his is among the stand out names on the cover.

But the truth is that the more I delved, the more I realised that politics has so much it could learn from the best of business, and both have so much they could learn from sport.  Too many politicians pay lip service to sport whereas they could actually adapt so much that the best of sport does to what they are trying to do themselves.

The book looks at all the things I believe are necessary for winning people and winning teams and organisations. Strategy. Teamship. Leadership. Mindset. Boldness. Innovation. Data. Crisis management and the use of setback. On most of these, I found far more examples of good practice in sport and business than I did in politics. It is actually quite worrying.

It is worrying how many business people named Putin as the most impressive current leader around, even for the wrong reasons, with Merkel the one who gets there for positive reasons. It is worrying too the general view of politics and politicians. I was at the Burnley v Hull match last weekend and coincidentally was seated next to Premier League supremo Richard Scudamore (he is in the book as it happens, as an example of someone with a strategic mind and outlook, cf FA), and he made a very interesting observation. He said he felt we were living in a country where people didn’t really want to vote for anyone.

As UKIP celebrates its latest rout of the Tories, as the Tories try to turn the focus to a silly tweet by a Labour frontbencher, as Andy Coulson comes out of jail a fraction into his sentence, it all just adds to the sense that politics is in a mess.

As to how to get itself out of it, it won’t be easy. But it won’t be done without strategy, and understanding what that means. It won’t be done without leadership, which means setting long term goals and objectives and showing a clear path towards meeting them, instead of bouncing around day to day. It won’t be done without teamship and I am afraid politics tends to be uniquely bad at that. It won’t be done without boldness, without a focused winning mindset, without constant innovation in thinking and practices. And it won’t be done without learning the lessons of setback and failure and turning them to advantage.

So whether talking to Jose Mourinho and Garry Kasparov about strategy, (both brilliant in very different ways) Anna Wintour or Ben Ainslie about leadership, baseball legend Joe Torre about turning setback to success, Dave Brailsford, Clive Woodward, Billy Beane on data and innovation, Richard Branson or John Browne on risk, Brian O’Driscoll, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara on teamship, Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson, surfer Layne Beachley or Aussie rules ‘Player of the Century’ Leigh Matthews on resilience, or the Mercedes F1 team on use of data, time and again I found the purest winning mindsets outside the political arena.

It has to change. One of the purposes of writing the book is to emphasise that we can all learn from our own successes and mistakes, but we can learn from the successes and mistakes of others too. And I have been very privileged in the kind of people who have shared their stories with me about both. It is very different to the ten books I have written before – six volumes of diaries, three novels, one short memoir on mental illness – but I have probably enjoyed writing it more than any of them, simply because of what I have seen and heard and learned from so many winning minds and winning teams. There are lessons in there for others too.

  • reaguns

    Gary Lineker spoke recently about how footballers can be intelligent, having a different type of intelligence. Just as being a schemer in the local underworld, or the leader of a band of rebels in the Afghanistan mountains might need a different, but equally keen, kind of intelligence to someone passing their exams for a degree in medicine.

    But I think one thing that must be taken into account in sport, is competition. By this I mean, the chance for a place in westminster, and indeed to be prime minister, is fought out between a few hundred, or a couple of thousand at most, of the graduates of a couple of universities in Britain.

    Ok there is competition to get into Oxbridge in the first place, but how many pupils genuinely aspire to do that?

    Whereas at least 50% of the boys in this country if not more, dream of becoming footballers, and take to the parks and fields in an effort to do so. It is then no surprise that the top level of that is probably more brutal and cutthroat than even politics is, so of course lessons can be learned.

  • ZacMurdoch

    I think it’s the lack of team spirit that is such a drawback in politics. Everyone is out for themselves before party, or even – as if – country. So you get inner teams who war with each other (like Blair’s and Brown’s) or who war with the rest of the party (like Miliband’s, both during his election campaign and now) and we poor saps out here look on in horror at the subsequent implosions. Cameron’s Tories might be crap at strategy (kneejerk reactions and firefighting are more their thing) but at least the inner cabinet seem slightly coherent and teamworkish.
    Labour would be in much better shape now if Charlie Whelan had never been born. I’ve lost hope for the next election – we’ll be saddled with the Tories and UKIP in unholy alliance with the SNP playing both ends against the middle for anything they can get.

  • Michele

    Strategy and teamship and planning and all the other positive techniques aren’t discrete from all the other influences in life though are they?

    Am not wishing to place a downer but I wonder wth some organisations are playing at and why their motive seems to be to bring people down all the damned time.

    We heard yesterday about how ‘chances were missed’ during the weeks or months before two hubristic crazed so-called humans fulfilled their yadder to behead a soldier.

    Yep, the Police response could have been quicker, of course it could IF the A205 had not, that day, been totally blocked in both directions in that south-eastern quarter from mid-morning, all afternoon till evening due to a driver unfamiliar with our roads trying to under-pass a bus (getting herself killed in the process).

    Was the part-closure of the South Circ (which Greenwich is on the edge of) even included in the news or made known to the panel?

    Should the Emergency teams have used helicopters or jet-backpacks? My mistake, sorrrreeeee.

    We can’t expect every member of every panel to be familiar with every locality they investigate but surely we should know whether they were/are apprised with everything relevant (or even what selective editing the media has performed IF the panel did take these matters in to account).

    Tsk, whinge whinge – I should make the effort to find out ….

  • Ehtch

    With UK politics, life, finance, and our form of Western Capitalism, our pop can see certain people are getting away with highway robbery, and it is not us skintoes doing it up the A1 near Nottingham or Leicester on a horse, standing up a stage coach, or with a bow and arrow. How the hell can they get away with it, paying penance of just a few months? People are getting pretty pissed off with these perverts, us the vast 95% majority, and Cameron will get it, eventually, his “allegedly” involvement in political phone hacking in the 2-noughties.

    Anyway, enough of this, simple vid I did, for my US friends, for today their Thanksgiving Day, my own “special relationships!”.