April 17, 2015

How to Spot a Winner

Former Communications Director for the Labour Party, journalist, and author of Winners, Alastair Campbell, has seen plenty of people rise and fall from power. Here he unpicks the characteristics that elevate the great to the exceptional ahead of the UK General Election, exclusively for Think Smarter.

There have been three phases to my working life: journalism, then politics, and now an odd mix of both, with sport, charity and consultancy thrown in. As a result, I’ve witnessed and experienced rapid rises and epic triumphs, as well as countless setbacks and miraculous resurrections. And I’ve noticed how people who get to the top of their fields share certain common characteristics. They tend to work harder than others, lead more clearly than others, they are team players as well as team leaders, and they know the difference between tactics and strategy. This last one is an obsession of mine, which is why ‘Strategy is God’ is the first sentence of the first chapter of Winners and how they succeed.

It is a book full of exceptional people, and whilst we may not end up being a Richard Branson, an Anna Wintour or a Diego Maradona, there are things we can learn from all of them. So what about the less obvious traits I’ve encountered in the process of writing Winners that elevate the great to the truly exceptional?


A real winner always focuses on the next win not the last one. Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was the first to be awarded a perfect ten at the Olympic games, in Montreal in 1976. When I interviewed about her victory three decades later, she was still full of self-criticism. ‘You know, I did not think it was perfection. I felt I had done better in training but sometimes you don’t see yourself as clearly as others do.’

Indeed, satisfaction can be a real risk, because it leads to complacency. Garry Kasparov has one of the most strategic minds I have ever encountered, but no amount of strategic brilliance could counter the comfort zone complacency that he blames for his losing the world chess title to Vladimir Kramnik in 2000. He acknowledged this when he told me: ‘I was at a very high peak and felt invincible. Not only did this make me complacent, but it also meant I had ceased to grow.’

Dissatisfaction is not about self-flagellation. It’s about staying alert and wanting to keep improving, knowing that rivals and opponents are constantly innovating. Keep moving your own goalposts and you’ll always stay ahead of the game.

Know your numbers

Charisma is an enormous asset in all disciplines, whether you’re looking to exceed in politics, business or sport. There is no doubt that Usain Bolt’s charm and confidence part explain why he is able so decisively to beat his opponents, psychologically weakening them before he’s even taken his place on the track. But his victories take hard work too. In sport that means learning to endure pain and grueling training regimes. In other disciplines, that means being mired in data.

Poker and politics are both numbers games. Instincts must be backed up by a deep understanding of your statistical landscape, and Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign is a prime example of utterly brilliant data management. Joe Rospars, key architect of Obama’s digital strategy, reveals some of the astonishing detail of what the campaign team knew about their audience. They knew that deep mistrust of the political and media classes meant that grass roots support was the way to build up votes for their candidate, and so they harnessed what they knew to create a groundswell of social media support. They found people who had ‘liked’ Barack Obama and worked on getting their friends to ‘like’ him too, creating an organic network of Obama evangelists. In each state they were able to use data to identify people who were likely to vote Democrat but who weren’t registered to vote, or who were strongly for Obama and could be turned into campaigners and fundraisers. Thus through the intelligent use of data, a one-term Illinois senator became the President of the United States of America. The charisma helped too.

Fail better

Handling and then learning from a crisis is an important part of success. Few people go through an entire career without one. But the truth is there are not that many real crises. Bill Clinton’s presidency went through the usual glitches of top level political leadership, but it was a sex scandal that led to his most difficult period in power. It could have been enough to drive him from office and leave him permanently disgraced, but instead Clinton continues to be a respected world leader and an influential philanthropist and political figure. His insistence on focusing on his presidential responsibilities whilst the world gorged on his sex life played a huge part in that.

Failure can also be an incredible motivator if you learn to handle it right. Michael Phelps was just 15 years old when he swam at his first Olympic experience. It was a huge achievement just to be there, but going home without any medals proved such a huge disappointment that he was spurred on to return four years later and win the first of 22 Olympic medals.
Sport has ended up a bigger part of the book than originally planned because that is where I found the winning mindset in its purest form. The best of sport does winning best, business does it second best, and modern politics has more to learn than it does to teach. With the exception, possibly, of communications and crisis management, I think politics takes the bronze medal position in all other areas. Politics needs to think smarter and it could do worse than look at the best of elite sport.

Winners for blogWinners: And How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell is published by Hutchinson and is available now.

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