Winners and how they succeed

Knowing that I would have an eleven hour flight to Sri Lanka, I decided to buy myself a copy of Alastair Campbell’s latest book, Winners And How They Succeed (Hutchinson, London 2015). I did so with some trepidation, for many of the reviews had been pretty damning. Nonetheless I thought it would be interesting to see what Alastair Campbell had to say. After all, his track record is pretty impressive: not least, as Tony Blair’s chief spokesman and strategist he helped guide the British Labour Party to three successive general election victories.

I freely confess that the title of the book caused me a degree of dis-ease. Nor was I helped by the quotation with which the introduction was headed: “You always get a buzz from winning. Winning is everything” (A.P. McCoy). As Christians we are not in the business of ‘winning’ in the sense of competing against others. For although the Scriptures teach us that there is a race to win (see, for instance 2 Tim 4.7-8), the fact is that on the day of Jesus Christ there will be a multitude of winners. Similarly, although there is a fight to be won (see again 2 Tim 4.7-8), our struggle is not with “enemies of blood and flesh”, but against the powers of the Evil One (see Eph 6.10-17). In that struggle we are seeking to ‘win’ men and women for Jesus and his church. It is only in this context where ‘winning is everything’. It was this concern which caused me to buy the book, and to see if there are lessons which can be learnt which can be applied to the service of the Kingdom of God. So with that necessary ‘caveat’, let me highlight some of the key points which Alastair Campbell has to make.

Part I of the book is somewhat irreverently entitled ‘The Holy Trinity’, which in Campbell’s terms is made up of Objective, Strategy, and Tactics – or as Christians would say ‘Mission, Strategy, and Tactics’.

“Objective comes first because it’s the most important step, and to an extent it’s also the easiest one to define: it’s where you want to go, what you want to achieve” (10).

For Christians our mission is clear: we are called to go Christ’s way and making disciples. But it is the ‘how’ which many churches are no good at. “Good leaders excel at strategy. Good teams excel at implementing strategy” (9), writes Campbell. He goes on: “If you do not have a clear objective, you have no definition of winning. If you do not have a clear strategy, you have no chance of winning. And if all you have are tactics, you have no right to win” (16). What is true of the world, is surely true of the church too. Every church needs a clear strategy. Related to this is the important fact that “it’s not strategy until it’s written down” (21) – or as Marilyn Monroe said in one of her poems, “think in ink”. Every church needs a clear strategy document!

Campbell has also some good things to say about leadership. He quotes former President Bill Clinton: “A leader never stops learning, never stops teaching, never stops looking to the future”. Leaders, Campbell says, should be “single-minded” (48): i.e. focussed upon the objective. Leaders too should be “resilient”, which in turn implies “a thick skin” (52):

Obviously, no skin should be so thick that you become impervious to critics who may have a point. But it does need to be thick enough to live with the hurt that criticism and attack may inflict. And thick enough to withstand criticisms that are just part and parcel of being a leader” (53).

Leadership also involves creating teams – and as Campbell rightly says: “The best team leaders are the best team players” (74). As far as teams are concerned:

“The effective team means good leadership, a strong and shared sense of strategy and objectives, the resources to deliver them and clarity as to individual roles. That is the essence of team-building. Slightly separate from this is teamship, which is more like the glue that holds the team together: a sense of openness and creativity, a resistance to the blame game when things go wrong, and a culture that encourages development, adaptability and endless renewal” (97)

I find this distinction helpful. One final statement which every insecure pastor should note:

“If giving praise where praise is due is one essential attribute of a successful team, not taking credit for someone else’s achievement is a natural corollary” (106).

Winners And How They Succeed may not be a great book, but it is an interesting read for those who are fascinated by the worlds of business, politics and sport. Campbell’s values often differ from those of a follower of Jesus, yet nonetheless he has insights from which Christian leaders can benefit, provided they are able to sort the wheat from the chaff, and then adapt those insights to church life.

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