Tony Blair | "Leadership and effective strategic communications"
On 25 June 2009, Tony Blair addressed the National Leadership Roundtable on church management at Wharton School in Philedelpia. You can read the full transcript of the speech below:
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It’s a real honor and pleasure to be here for this National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management and to say to Geoff [Boisi] in particular congratulations on having originated this and having given it such extraordinary leadership by example. Geoff is a remarkable person that I’ve got to know since leaving office. It’s one of the really good things about leaving office – getting to meet new and interesting people, and Geoff Boisi is one of the most interesting, most exciting, and actually one of the best people I’ve met since leaving office. Thank you, Geoff, and thanks for what you do.
It’s great to be here in Philadelphia for my very first time. I’ve never been here before. I’ve discovered an interesting fact that may be slightly undiplomatic to mention. In the days, if you recall, of the British Empire this was apparently the second largest city after London. So there you go, but I’m sure it’s happier as it is today.
I also just wanted to say a word, too, about my sense of personal happiness and pride about being a member of the Catholic Church today. This was obviously for me a very personal journey and I’m a very new member of the church, but I’ve felt ever since coming into the Catholic Church a sense of homecoming, and for that reason as well it’s a pleasure to come and address you here today and to address you on topics to do with leadership and communication – of which I have some experience; whether I have any wisdom or not time will tell.
I think the first point that I really wanted to make today is that both communication and leadership are tough. Now there’s an insight for you in today’s world. Occasionally, particularly in America, because people used to watch prime minister’s questions here quite a lot, people will say to me, “Do you ever miss it?” I always say that’s like asking someone who’s been on the rack for ten years whether they want to do a little stretching. [Laughter] So the short and simple answer is no, I do not miss it. That was perhaps one of the most difficult times in communications in the schedule of the prime minister. When you’re prime minister, you have a member of parliament who kind of looks after you in parliament and is called your PPS. Every Wednesday morning at three-minutes-to-twelve he would come and get me from the little room I had in the House of Commons to lead me along to the House of Commons chamber. And some sense of how I used to feel on this occasion can be expressed best by saying that the trouble is now that when I see this man, who was a lovely man and one of my best and dearest friends, I tell him, “You just kind of make me feel depressed.” I never got over it. Even now at three-minutes-to-twelve on a Wednesday, there’s that slight chill that comes upon me. [Laughter]
In my experience, the starting point of any strategy for communication or any attempt at leadership is to understand that the world divides into two: there are the doers and there are the commentators. The doers end up taking positions of leadership and the commentators end up commentating on those doers.
Just recently I’ve been rereading the letters of St. Paul, and when you do that and you study the development of the early church and St. Paul’s leadership of it, you understand it was a tough business even back then. People were subjecting him to constant criticism and constant commentary and he had to try both to lead in those circumstances but also to communicate with people as to what his leadership was about, what he was trying to do, what the early church should be trying to achieve. And if it was difficult then, the context in which we try to communicate today is not merely separated by almost 2,000 years of history but is separated by a different planet almost.
Differences in technology, in means of communication, in the ways that people interact with each other. We have a 24-hour-7-day-a-week media today that is, let us say, a little harsh, occasionally brutal to be in as an environment. It tends to work today more by scandal, impact, and controversy than it does by the simple regaling or telling of news, and that affects every single institution in the modern world. So, really, whether it’s somebody operating in the world of politics or business or in the world of faith, that environment and that context is dramatically different from anything the world has experienced before and it does hugely increase the toughness of the experience of communicating, and so, too, does the virulence of the commentary which is visited upon people in positions of leadership. In addition to that, if we look at the way that young people communicate today and the way they interact with each other – and if you are like me and you have struggled with the technology, to put it mildly, and when you see your own children, and even my little nine-year-old, engage with the new technology – you realize that youngsters are living in a world that I couldn’t imagine when I was young, let alone my grandfather. And if you take for example what has been happening in Iran over these past couple of weeks, that is in some sense a dramatic consequence of the way that people communicate today and interact with each other and exchange views.
The chief characteristic of the world in which we live today is not simply its interdependence, though that is profound. There is that sense of interconnection in the world today, again quite differently from before. But it’s also the speed, the pace at which things are communicated and at which movements and ideas travel across the world, across national boundaries, across different cultures, never mind different countries.
So when we talk about how we communicate as any institution, as any group of people, we’re doing so in a world that is transformed, revolutionized, quite different from anything that has gone before.
What are then the lessons that can be drawn from this? Any lessons that I draw or any predictions that I make about how the future will work I say with a great deal of humility.
I was saying to Geoff last night that my oldest boy was just about to graduate from Yale about 18 months ago, and he said to me, “So what do you think I should do as a career?” I said to him, “I think banking sounds like a good idea.” So I give the disclaimer right from the very outset the lessons I draw or how I see it is not always how it should be seen. [Laughter]
The first thing, I think, is this: the one thing I learned about communication is that you cannot communicate anything unless you are clear about the direction of your own travel, where you are going, what it is you are trying to do. And if that clarity is lacking, it doesn’t matter; you can have the best communications specialists in the world and they’re never going to overcome that problem.
If you look at anyone in the world in any walk of life and you ask who is getting across a message, it is the people with a clarity of direction, a certainty that this is where they’re trying to go, not always necessarily getting there, but a certainty that this is where they intend and want to go. And that has to be done and you have to keep on that path irrespective of the brick-backs that are coming at you from every direction, because that’s the way it is. The important thing is not to believe that you’re ever going to get to your destination without the vehicle looking a trifle battered and rickety at times, but that you know that this is where I’m going, and I’m going to do my level best to get there.
So for us, I hope, as Christians and members of the Catholic Church, I think it’s always important that we return to the central purpose, which is to demonstrate God’s love and compassion, to be in the service of other people. That is what this church is about at its best; always has been and always will be. And interestingly, again, when you go back and you read the letters of St. Paul, all the teaching which is interesting and fascinating and generates great tomes of theology – all of that is important, but none of it ever obscures what draws people to the Christian faith and to God’s path, which is the spirit of love and compassion and the sense of service to others.
So that direction, if you like, for our Church has always got to be expressed. Indeed, it can be expressed very simply in the work that this Church does at a local level, at an international level, in countless different ways. There are people every day in virtually every corner of the world who are benefiting from that love, compassion, and sense of service.
The second things is that in a world of 24-hour-a-day-7-day-a-week media, and in a world, too, that is a world frankly without deference (that in some sense is a good thing, but in some sense it can easily tip into disrespect, but it’s the world we live in), there’s no point in thinking, and this would be my second lesson, that we can hide away.
We have to be out there unafraid, or if afraid undaunted, still prepared to be out there. If there’s a problem we have to deal with it. In the information age, which is the age we live in, we’ve got constantly to be out there and communicating and talking about what we’re doing and why were doing it.
That brings me to the third point, which is that in the end – and perhaps this is different and more easy for people like yourselves in senior positions of leadership within the Catholic Church – I came to the conclusion that it was great if you got what you guys call the homerun, but if that is beyond your grasp, you must at least strive for a balanced picture. There are going to be problems in today’s world because people are human, members of the Church are human, politicians are human (this comes as a shock, but it’s true). In a transparent and open world you’re never ever going get to the point where there aren’t difficult things that have to be dealt with. There are going to be. That’s just the way it is. But you can strive for balance by saying, “Yes, I understand that and we will deal with that, but remember – this is where it goes right, too.”
One of the reasons I was drawn to this Church was the work that it does caring for the sick, looking after the elderly, showing compassion for people for whom most people don’t show compassion.
I remember visiting a program for people in the UK which the Catholic Church was running and it was basically all about rehabilitating those who had committed serious criminal offenses. Now these were not the people about whom anything good could be written – these were not people who had lived good lives, these were not people in respect of whom the majority of society would want to have any association at all. Yet we know that one of the most important aspects of our Lord’s teaching was that he was prepared to associate with sinners and the worst of sinners, and to show mercy and compassion towards them. I remember visiting this program and there was the Catholic Church and the sisters trying to help these people, doing so with a selflessness that was absolutely remarkable, that was divine in its inspiration, if you like.
Every time someone says, “Look, this is where the church has gone wrong,” it’s important to say, “I understand and we will deal with it, but look at where it goes right,” and then strive at least for that balance. I know the help that our Church gives in the work that is done in some of the poorest parts of Africa in pursuit of justice and indeed life for people who otherwise are going to die as a result of famine or conflict or disease. We won’t ever manage to eliminate the problems, but we can strive for the balance, and we can point out that alongside the erring that human beings do, nonetheless there are these tremendous acts of mercy and compassion and human solidarity.
I witnessed an example of this recently when the Holy Father Pope Benedict visited Israel and Palestine. It was a difficult visit to do because he was going to get criticized by all different people for all different reasons with frankly all sort of agendas, but in his grace and in the humility with which he carried himself, and in the simplicity and clarity of his message which was about peace and mutual respect and love, he did an enormous amount of good. Even those who were absolutely determined that they were going to write the visit down had, in the end, to write the visit up. Balance we can get. The homerun? Well, let’s hope so. But balance we can get.
You have to have clarity in your direction, you have to be out there and undaunted, you have to strive at least for balance.
The other thing I think is important in communication is that you have to be out there in the real world, able to understand how the world itself is changing and how institutions, even our institutions, have to evolve with it.
One of the things I do in my new life after Number 10 Downing Street has to do with my foundation. It deals with interfaith and people of different faiths proud of their own faith, but willing to understand and respect and reach out to people of a different faith. We do a whole set of programs. We educate young people in schools. We have a universities program that we began at Yale. We hope very much we will be doing it at Durham University in the UK. We’re in discussion with universities in Singapore, China, and the Middle East.
One of the things that is important in trying to lead and communicate in the modern age is that we have a sense that there are going to be new fields of endeavor and new challenges. It’s important that whilst we do what we’ve always done and we do it well, we must also be assimilating and taking on board the new areas of work where we have to show new approaches, and embark on new endeavors with a sense of creativity about how we deal with a world that is constantly changing and evolving around us. The reason I am so passionate about interfaith is that I think that the era of globalization essentially pushes people together and obliterates boundaries of taste and culture and nation and so on. Religious faith in those circumstances, if it is a divisive and exclusionary force, can then pull people apart at the point when globalization is pushing them together, and that would be dangerous. On the other hand, religious faith can be the humanizing force of globalization. It can lend it values, give it authority, and root it in some common and shared purpose for the benefit of humanity.
So my fourth point would be that if we want to be out there communicating, we’ve also got to be out there recognizing the world as it’s changed and the world as it is – not the world as it was. When these new field of endeavor come upon us we’ve got to be prepared to make the changes necessary to meet the challenges that those new fields put before us.
I think the fifth thing I would say about communication is that the best communication always comes from an inner belief. If we don’t have faith in ourselves, that will come across pretty quickly when we’re trying to communicate our faith to others. We’ve got to have not a sense of self-belief that tips into arrogance, and we should never forget the essential humility that our faith should bestow upon us, but we should be motivated by an inner conviction that shines through. If you look at the work that is done just by the people in this room – some, of course, are eminent people in the priesthood, some are philanthropists, some are volunteers – all of us from just laypeople like myself to people to those in positions of authority within the church, all of us are in communion with each other, motivated by the same belief and the same conviction.
I always used to find that no matter how difficult the times were – and they are difficult in any position of leadership – you can never lead and you can never communicate what your leadership is about unless that inner belief is there, unless that faith comes through. That is what communicates what you’re about to other people. In my experience, one of the things that are very difficult at times, particularly in the media world in which we live, is that the most publicity is given to those that shout the loudest. So, if you’re out there and you’re shouting and you’ve got your placard up, you’re going to get all the publicity. Sometimes what is necessary – and people can be very hard, they can say harsh things, things that we regard as very unfair and hurtful – is to have a little bit of faith in other people as well. They do kind of understand all that goes on, and they do also understand the distinction between the doers and the commentators. In fact even when they’re commentating sometimes they understand it. I always used to find that with my own people – the British people – that even though obviously you got a lot of criticism, people also had a kind of grudging respect for the fact that you got up there and you did your job.
I remember the 2005 election campaign was actually kind of a lovely thing for me because I had really never discussed politics much with my children, believe or not. Once the flat door in Number 10 was closed, I wanted to talk about virtually anything other than politics. I never though they were particularly political, but in that election they decided their dad was up for election and they were going to come out and help and so they did. My two boys went out on the campaign trail and in the north part of England they were knocking on doors. My boy Nicky knocked on a door and got a complete earful. That person didn’t know it was my son, of course, but he just got a complete earful. “Tony Blair this and Tony Blair that!” So anyway the door closes, and Nicky goes over to Ewen who’s canvassing a different part of the street, and he says to him, “Ewen, there’s a bloke over there and he absolutely loves Dad. I know he’d really appreciate it if you’d knock on his door as well.” So Ewen goes over and knocks on the door. Now this man’s got another one of these Labour canvassers at his door, so he goes absolutely at him all hammer and tongues about what a terrible person I am! Now, Ewen is a little bit different from Nicky, and he says at the end of it, “Well, I don’t really think that’s fair,” and the bloke replies, “Well what do you know, really?” Ewen says, “He’s my dad actually,” and the bloke says, “I’m so sorry! Look, he’s not that bad, really! Come and sit down! Have a cup of tea!” [Laughter]
The point is that as well as having faith in ourselves we also should have some faith in other people as well, because my experience is that they’re often better and more capable of working out things for themselves than sometimes we think.
That leads me to my very final point about communication and leadership. One of the reasons it’s always important to go back and read the Bible is that when I do it, I go back and I recover something of the essence each time. Each time I recover something of what it must have been like when people were reading it for the first time. Along with everything else that comes through, there is an overwhelming sense, yes, of the sinfulness of human beings, but also of the optimism that salvation can come and that they can be saved. I think that in anything I have tried to do when I am communicating, and I do this not as a device but because I believe it, I try to communicate something of the optimism, of the hope, of the possibility. I think that’s important because people need to hear that for all the troubles and the difficulties and the challenges, there is such a thing as progress and that through God’s will progress can be made. I don’t think there is ever going to be a message – particularly the message you are all engaged in, that we are all engaged in – that people will hold dear unless along with the faith, there is the hope. The love is what motivates it and inspires it. The faith is what gives us the hope, the ultimate optimism that we can – despite all our bad ways and errors – be better people and create a better world. The best communication is always the communication that comes from the heart, is motivated by making the world a better place and that gives human beings – whatever their station, whatever their walk of life, whatever their background – the hope and the promise that through God’s love, our world can be better and they can be saved.
Plenary discussion highlights
Mr. Blair responded to questions from Leadership Roundtable Council members on the topics of: transparency and discretion, world leaders who have influenced peace and public policy, and the image of the Church in the media.
The following are selected responses:
The question about other world leaders that I came across who were able through their advocacy establish decent public policy – Nelson Mandela was one very clearly, and actually the recent speech by President Obama in Cairo made a huge impact across the world incidentally, certainly across the Muslim world. I spend a lot of time out in the Middle East and it’s had a tremendous impact there. Why is it that they are able to do it? They are able to do it if there is authenticity in what they’re doing, which is why Nelson Mandela was so powerful because he was an authentic figure. It’s, also, I think, people do want leadership. They do want people who are prepared to stand up, and I actually know some examples of leadership when people stood up and said things people didn’t want to hear. And I will say to people the toughest thing about leadership is not how often you say “yes” but whether you’re prepared to say “no” because “yes” is easy; it’s the “no” that offends in my experience.
On the question of the balance between transparency and discretion – I think we have a duty to be truthful about our own problems, but we also have a duty to protect our good name, and I think that is the balance that you have to strike. You then say, “This is a problem, we have dealt with it, and we have been open about it, but we are not going to apologize for the essential mission of our Church and the good that we do, and here it is.” Now, this is a very difficult thing, and there are plenty of people who would disagree with me on this, but my basic experience is that if you don’t stand up for your own cause, no one else is going to do it. And, therefore, it’s not a question as I say of not being transparent, and sometimes it’s not even a question of the balance between transparency and discretion, but it’s what I mean by saying strive for balance at least. So that they know the good that’s being done. Because, actually, the good that’s being done, that cannot in any sense diminish the wrongness of any act or any person who has done wrong, is a good that needs to be proclaimed and a message that needs to be heard. We’ve also got to stand up for ourselves in this. In the case where someone’s done something wrong, you have to deal with that situation, and it might in the context of politics end up with someone being disciplined, but you go back out there saying “Here’s what were about, this is what were doing, and this is why actually despite it all what were doing is valuable and deserves support.”
I do think you can get yourself into such a situation of apology for the wrongdoing such that virtually everything else is forgotten about. So it’s a balance, but I’m slightly on the vigorous side. I think particularly with what this institution does, honestly, because it shouldn’t be that people take away the good name because of the acts that some people have done, or things that people have done wrong, it shouldn’t be that good name is taken away. So my view is that the image of the Church can often be negative, but the good that it does locally and globally is there, it is clear, it should be proclaimed and it’s not arrogant to stand up for yourselves. It is arrogant if you do not accept the wrongdoing is wrongdoing. It’s not arrogant, though, to describe the good that is done and be proud of it.
Mr. Blair responded to questions from Leadership Roundtable Council members on the topics of: Catholic social thought and the success of the Jubilee debt relief campaign, how the sacraments help leaders be peacemakers, and how to further engage young adults in the faith and service of the Church.
The following are selected responses:
At the time of the Jubilee campaign, which was a campaign to cancel the debt of the poorest countries, which incidentally was led by the Churches, CAFOD, Christian Aid, and others – and then we did the 2005 Gleneagles summit when I was president of the G8 – you know we did cancel the debts of the most highly indebted nations, and many of those were able to put the interest saved into education and health care programs and it really made a difference in peoples lives.
Christian social thought is about action, and that is what will motivate people more than any other single thing that we can do. In that campaign, this is why I say stand up and be proud of what we’ve done. There were hundreds of thousands of lives, probably millions of lives that will have been saved as a result of that Christian inspired campaign. We’re working with parts of the Catholic Church now out on the anti-malaria campaign, because in many of the poorest parts of Africa over one million people die every year, and about half of those children under the age of five. In the remote parts of Africa they very often don’t have a hospital or a health clinic, but they have a church or a mosque. So what were trying to do is get both the churches and/or the mosques to say we should at least use these places as distribution centers for bed nets and medicines and the health workers and so on. And the Catholic Church again is playing a leading part in trying to get that done. And I found myself that the fact that that campaign was led by people from the Christian faith, it made a huge difference, not just to my feeling of support and pride for the Church but also because it then encouraged others to make the same journey.
I’ve found it difficult sometimes to talk about my faith, just because… people can fairly easily ridicule it, but I’ve found the great thing for me was to come in to full communion in the Church, to be able to participate in Communion, and for me the act of Communion is hugely symbolic of reconciliation and peace. I mean, the great thing is it actually leads to the important point about the Church itself. And why is the Church important, and not simply faith and acts of good work? Why is the Church important? The Church is important because it’s where we come together from all different walks of life, we come together, we are equal before God, and we partake of Communion before God. And in that, that is the process by which we heal ourselves as human beings, and we do that together.
But it is important I think to show young people that, yes of course the essence of our faith is about the good that you do and the love that you show, but actually there is an importance in the institution of the Church, and that it isn’t just turning up for a ritual once a week or twice a week or on holy days or whatever. It is actually something very profound about the Communion of the Church and the act of worship and what that symbolizes and the fact that you come, equal and humble before God. And I think that it is a very important part of this. And sometimes with young people as well, I’ve found this myself and I’ve found it with my own kids, indeed, that the worst thing about being a parent is when you say something to your kids, and you think, I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before, and indeed you did, because your parents used to say the same. But I think that for young people, sometimes you’re wanting to draw them in and you’re wanting to persuade them and so on and so forth, but sometimes you also have to tell them the truth, that being a part of the Church is an important part of our Christian mission, and the sooner they learn that the easier it will all be.
Mr. Blair responded to questions from Leadership Roundtable Council members on the topics of: the art of politics as a believer, practical initiatives the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom might consider to help promote this form of explicit Catholic leadership in public life, and how we bring the beauty and the prophetic call of our faith to the political realm.
The following are selected responses:
In terms of how the Church approaches the political world and asking about the UK and the secular leadership there and things that we could do rather like the Leadership Roundtable here, it is really important to get the lay, the secular together with the bishops and the priests. I think it is a really important exchange because that is the way you enrich from both sides, the understanding and the dialogue, and you get some sense of how to handle some of these issues.
People will believe very strongly in issues. We believe certain things and have to say them. So I would sincerely say to you that I think what’s important when you do engage with the world of politics, is never to lose what actually makes you religious people and religious leaders. You’re not politicians, you are religious leaders. You’re speaking from the point of view of religion, you’re not playing the game of politics, and secondly, that people always understand, that even if you are raising an issue that is of great political controversy, it is part of a bigger picture that you have about the world, all of which is motivated by a sense of compassion, solidarity, a belief in justice, and a belief in helping every person find God’s love and do God’s will. So it’s not for sure easy. Probably the last thing I would say to you is this: for people out in the real world of politics but broader than that in society, what is the thing that draws them to faith and to the Church? Ultimately, what I have found in my own life, it is the concept of grace. It is God’s grace. And I sometimes find it very hard to translate that word and explain it to people. But it is something that is profoundly meaningful to me. I know when I was in politics and even though I was a person of faith myself, but I would meet a “man of the cloth” as it were, what I wanted to see in their face and hear in their words, was something of God’s grace, because that was the thing that I found in difficult things was most comforting. I remember occasionally people would say to me, or I would be in a place where a sister or a nun would say to me on my way out of church and they’d take me by the arm and say, “We pray for you every week.” I can’t tell you how sustaining that was in the job that I did, and it was all about the communication of God’s grace. And I think when you interact with society or with the world of politics, people always should say – you know, you may be saying something they don’t want to hear, you may be saying something they completely disagree with – but they should always know that when they’re looking at you and talking to you, there is that sense of God’s grace coming through, because that’s what they’re looking for; that’s what draws them to you. And that’s what actually will make them listen. So I think it’s a really important thing and sometimes people find it very strange as to why people would want to devote themselves to a life of prayer, for example, but actually that’s what it’s about, that’s what the true act of prayer is about. It is about reaching for, finding and expressing God’s grace, and if you do that I won’t say you’ll ever find it easy, because you won’t, but the people you’re dealing with, I think, will understand why you are as you are and why they should respect it.