Tony Blair on leadership, interfaith understanding, and the importance of faith in the modern world
Tony Blair spoke to 4,000 people at the Royal Albert Hall in London at a conference on leadership organised by Holy Trinity Brompton. Below is the transcript from his interview with HTB's Nicky Gumbel at the event.
Nicky Gumbel: Tell us about the journey of your faith. How did you come to the very strong faith that you have today.
Well first of all let me say thank you very much for having me. It’s a great pleasure to be here in such a remarkable gathering. The Alpha leadership is worldwide famous and well done to you, and I know there are a lot of people from around the world here, actually. So it’s an amazing achievement.
My journey of faith started… My father was actually - and still is - a convinced atheist. So it was rather strange for me, my journey of faith, but it began when I was in school, a young boy. And, I remember the first time it meant something to me was when I was ten years old. My father actually had a very serious stroke and I remember going to school one day not knowing whether he was going to live or not. I went a choir school in County Durham. The headmaster called me into his study. He said to me ‘I think we should kneel and say a prayer for your father.’ And I said to him, ‘I think I should tell you this… (when you’re only ten years old it’s all very confusing)… I should tell you that my father doesn’t believe in God.’ And I’ll never forget what he said to me: ‘but God believes in him, so let us kneel and pray.’ That made a big impact on me. Then I sort of lost touch with my faith in a way until university again when a very remarkable preacher… A man called Peter Thomson, who sadly passed away two or three years ago, really got me interested again and revived my whole interest in faith.
When we chatting beforehand you were talking about reading Acts 10. You’re obviously still reading the Bible and praying… Just tell me something about what you were reading in Acts 10.
Well I was reading the part where Peter meets Cornelius. And obviously at that point it was very much about Jewish people being the apostles. And Jesus calls himself a Jew, a rabbi. And the idea of when he [Peter] visits Cornelius and he says ‘the Holy Spirit has come upon everyone, Gentile and Jew alike. How can you deny them a place in God’s church when the Holy Spirit has come upon them?’ And this wonderful kind of revolution, reopening up to people who are different, to what were called pagans at the time, is still a remarkable thing to read about. I think one of the most interesting examples of leadership is actually in that early church, how they developed, how they grew, how people did not only do extraordinarily brave things, but how they organised themselves. When you think about it, there they were just a really handful of people. Despite everything - persecution, despair and difficulty - they organised and they built this remarkable institution of God.
So, faith and leadership. Things are very different here from the US. In the US it’s fine to say ‘I’m a Christian’ but it’s much harder here isn’t it? Faith and decision-making and how you speak about faith when you are in a position of political leadership in this country. How do you handle those kind of things?
It’s just very different from the US. I remember when I was doing some address to the country when I was Prime Minister. The American president finishes an address to the American people by saying ‘God bless America’. I had the idea of finishing my address by saying ‘God bless Britain.’ This caused consternation in the whole system. So a committee was convened to discuss it and they said you can’t really. I remember we had this debate on and off and then finally one of the civil servants in a very po-faced way said, ‘I would just remind you, Prime Minister, that this is not America.’ So I gave up on the idea. I think it’s a shame if you can’t since it’s obviously a part of what you are. Look, I think God and religion can also be abused by politicians too so you’ve got to be careful.
In terms of decision-making, how does your faith and decision-making relate? How do you relate that into your every day? There are different political parties but also commerce, different walks of life… how do faith and decision-making in terms of leadership inter-relate?
I think what faith does is it gives you the strength to take the decisions that you think are right. Okay, it doesn’t mean to say you are right, but it gives you that strength. But I think the fascinating thing about leadership is that I think it’s the same in any walk of life. Whether you are a political leader, a church leader, or a business leader, a leader in civic society... It’s all about this extraordinary thing of being prepared to step out when other people might step back. It’s quite a frightening thing to do. By the way, I know people often talk about leaders being born, I think actually you learn leadership as well.
How do you grow in leadership?
By trial and error and a lot of criticism.
Let’s just take that criticism thing. We get a tiny bit of criticism, occasionally someone in the church complains about something we do. How do you deal with that?
First of all, it comes with the territory. So my advice to anyone who is thinking of having a position of leadership in no matter what walk of life is don’t do it if you’re not prepared to be criticised. But in my view you end up dividing life into two sorts, the doers and the critics. And it’s better to be a doer than a critic. The other thing is also what I’ve learned about is that you do get a lot of criticism. Particularly in today’s world in the internet and so on, you get a lot of sharp, quite brutal criticism that is often not very thought through, but it’s there and it can be quite hurtful. But there’s a deeper level at which people will also understand is that leadership is difficult. I remember one of the nice things that happened to me - and there weren’t many of them in the 2005 election campaign - is that my two eldest boys, Euan and Nicky, without any prompting decided they would come out and campaign for their dad in the election, just as an act of family solidarity as it were. So we sent them off to some place - down in the south of England I think it was - to go canvassing, and they were both canvassing in this area of the street. And anyone involved in politics will know what canvassing is like when you’re fighting a general election campaign. But, anyway, Nicky, who is my middle boy, knocked on this door and said ‘I’m here representing the Labour Party.’ Anyway, back came this volley of abuse: ‘That Tony Blair, I’m not voting for anyone, I can’t stand him, he’s the most…’ You know, an absolute ear-badgering. And so the door slammed in his face and he sort of goes off down the path. Now Nicky has a sense of humour. So he sees Euan further up the street and says to him, ‘Euan, you should go and talk to that guy in number fourteen. Big fan of dad’s… He’d love to word with you.’ So, Euan - well he’s had a tough day - wanders up and knocks on the door. This bloke is another Labour canvasser. He’s obviously got no idea who they are. So Euan gets an even more violent volley of abuse with every term applied to his father that you could think of. And he’s a little more sensitive than Nicky, so at the end of this he kind of says to this guy, ‘Look, I think this is a bit much. You know you’re talking about my Dad!’
This bloke says, ‘Oh my God!, I’m so sorry, come in and have a cup of tea!’ So it happens at two levels. People are very critical of leaders and they do voice their opinions, but in the end you get a certain respect for being willing to make that step out.’
And you said earlier that it was hurtful. How do you deal with the hurt? How do you personally deal with that?
Well, however much you say it doesn’t get to you, it kind of does in a way.
Some of it you don’t read. Sometimes I would know as Prime Minister (and occasionally now) this isn’t a day to read the newspapers. They used to be carried up to the flat above Downing Street and sometimes I’d say, you know, ‘Just leave those by the door’.
The other thing is also to realise that it’s a privilege to lead. Cherie always had a very good way of dealing with this… Sometimes I’d get very upset, we’d be sitting around the kitchen table and you slightly slip into whingeing a bit and she would always say to me, ‘Stop moaning – it’s voluntary.’
Which is in a way true. Ultimately part of the character development you go through is to say look, it’s a privilege I’m in this position, I’ll do my best and in the end yes the criticism comes with the job but so does the thrill of trying to do new things and breaking new ground and showing people the way.
You can harden though can’t you? Through too much criticism. How do you allow that to mould you and grow you as a leader and avoid becoming too hard?
Well having teenage kids helps, or it did when I was in Downing Street. I remember when I appeared on the Simpsons, when I thought I’d done quite a lot as Prime Minister, and one of my kids says to me ‘You know that’s the first thing I’ve really been proud of’.
You just have to keep your feet on the ground. I think the other thing is Leadership is a balance between leading and listening. You’ve always got to listen. I think as you get older it gets harder to open your mind to new thoughts, new ideas, the best leaders I’ve met have retained an enthusiasm, an eagerness to learn throughout their period as leaders. That’s a very important part of leadership. Sometimes you’ve just got to think maybe the world’s changed and I haven’t changed with it so let me think about that.
In the church holding a team together is always a challenge but in politics you’re holding a team together and forming close relationships with people who are potentially rivals. It’s a different challenge isn’t it? How do you maintain relationships in this pressurised environment?
First of all you have a team around you who really have to be people you trust and rely upon, and I can’t think of an example of a great leader without a great team. The team around you is immensely important. I think the relationship in that team is very important too. The way I looked at it was they weren’t there just to do as I wanted but to have a sense of interaction and ownership of what I was trying to do. I was very lucky to have people who were big enough in their own right to be able to say ‘look, I think you’re wrong’ or ‘I think we should do it this way’. I think that’s a really important aspect of leadership and I paid a lot of attention to my team. I think if you have a good team of people it’s an enormous amount of support.
And frankly you have relationships some of which can be supportive some of which you have got to manage. The problem with politics is that all your relationships are played out in a very public way. I always say to people that one of the things I learnt…
Up in my constituency there was what we used to call a Working Man’s club, I think now its just called a Labour club, there was an eight person committee that used to run that and I used to say that the dynamics of that eight person committee was just the same as the G8 world leaders. No difference between them. There’d be someone who was always mouthing off and someone who sat quiet until the right moment to come in, there would be the rivalries between the Secretary and the Treasurer or whatever and that’s the way it is.
All the way through you have the same dynamic happening and the thing is if you’re trying to lead them, like when I had the chairmanship of the G8, trying to lead them to a position you just have to work round those things. One of the most difficult things about leadership is distinguishing between the objectives of leadership and the business of leadership. The objectives are the big things you’re trying to achieve but a certain amount of it is operational, you’ve got to get the details right, you’ve got to manage the people. The single most important thing I learnt about leadership is to keep the strategy and the tactics running together but never confuse the two. Strategy is what you’re really trying to do and that you need to keep constantly in your mind and that has to be the focus you’re heading towards. The tactics, that’s the business of the operation, you have to work it all out and manage people as best you can.
Even great causes, even the most noble causes require good managers, you don’t get it done any other way and frankly I learnt a lot of lessons from good and bad management.
You talked earlier about criticism, how you get criticised even if you get something right. What happens if you’re not sure if you’ve got it right? What do you do with the mistakes, how do you handle that?
Well what I’ve learnt over time is that if you could predict the future life would be very easy but you can’t. Sometimes you are in a situation where you have a decision of leadership where you can’t predict the outcome. I found in the end the only recourse you have and in a sense the obligation of leadership is to do what you think is right. It may not be right but you should at least be true to yourself and if you’re not then that is what makes you uncomfortable. Every time I would be toying with something and think ‘Well the easy thing to do is this’ if I wasn’t comfortable with it that was always what I found most difficult and most undermining of my own sense of where I was going and what I was trying to do.
You were very honest about a lot of things like foxhunting where you thought ‘oh I wish I hadn’t embarked on that’. How do you handle those things when you think ‘oh I wish I hadn’t done that’?
I think in the end its partly about, well there are some huge decisions I took, Afghanistan, Iraq, public service reform, which in the end whether right or wrong I did what I thought was right. The most difficult thing is when you come up against a situation in which the politics push you one way even though the principle pushes you another and you know, I didn’t always get that right. I find it very difficult because one of the oddest things about the journey of leadership as Prime Minister is that you start at your least capable and most popular and end at your least popular and most capable. It’s just the way leadership happens, your learning the whole time. One of the things I’ve learnt, which is a really interesting lesson in Leadership more generally is that often what happens is you have a set of givens in a situation, so this is the way the system operates and you try and make changes within that system whereas what you should be asking yourself is, is this system right? Challenging the givens of a system can be very hard but often it’s the only way to get results. It took me quite a lot of time to learn that.
One of the problems with leadership is confrontation. What do you do when dealing with a world leader who was say a human rights abuser? How do you deal with that level of confrontation?
It depends if you think there were on a path that could change or not, and sometimes not was the answer. I think it depends how you do it and actually the confrontation with world leaders is sometimes easy to do because you have a script and you deliver it I actually found what was a lot more difficult was confronting people in your own political system, your own society, your own party. The tone of that exchange really matters. I think that one of the things that’s saddest about the world in which we live in and the way with which debate and discourse is conducted is that people feel that if they disagree the other person is kind of evil. Actually we can disagree. People can be perfectly reasonable in their disagreement, we don’t need to hate each other in order to disagree and I think one really important thing that we need is a civility of debate that replaces what is so often the exchange of abuse rather than a decent and sustained argument in which people can trade arguments without hating the other person. Now when I talk about Faith and my foundation which is about religious faith and interfaith I find that, when I’m having a debate with people who can be quite aggressive from a secular point of view I always say that I’m happy to have the debate but I’m not going to treat you like an idiot for what you believe so don’t treat me like that either so lets just have the exchange.
You took on Christopher Hitchens, which is a very brave thing to do.
Well he was a remarkable man. We had an interesting discussion actually, I would say he was actually quite a spiritual person even if he would describe himself as an atheist. Sometimes what people criticize for is often to do with ritual and dogma and things that aren’t really intrinsic to why we have faith and the reason I think its important that we have an interaction and a debate with people who are secular is that it also forces us to go to the heart of what we believe and why we believe it. So it’s quite a different type of debate so I go immediately to what faith means in my life in a profound way I don’t actually start talking about the order of service. And I think that’s a really important thing for us to do to try and tell people that our faith is not alien to reason and it’s not something that’s based on tradition or dogma its actually something we believe in our hearts and its something that’s enriched our lives.
One of the things everybody realises about you is you’re extraordinary ability of communication, Just say a little about that, was it something you were born with or did you learn?
Here’s the thing. My very first public speech was just a little over 30 years ago. In a town hall that wasn’t quite as large as the Albert Hall, but it was quite a size about 2/3 the size up in the North. I was due to speak on British politics and I was just beginning as a candidate, I spent days preparing this speech. I get into the hall there are, 6 people. I didn’t have the wit at the time to think, 6 people, why don’t we just sit in a circle so I literally spoke up on the lectern as if there were thousands of people instead of 6. But the most disconcerting thing was that the lady at the end halfway through my speech just nodded off. And I remember going back and just thinking ‘you’ve got so much to learn’. So you learn about it! I remember my first TV interview in the east of England. There was this closure of this works and the interviewed said ‘so tell us about the closure of this works’ and I said I’ve got the following10 points to make. He said ‘you’ve got 20 seconds mate, if you can make one point you’re lucky’. So I had a huge amount to learn but its important to learn it, in the information age communication is 50% of the battle.
It’s tough because its so public. I’ve done talks where I’ve just died but at least I know its not being televised! Tell us a little about the Women’s Institute speech, I’ve done that, well I haven’t spoken to the Women’s Institute
I always thought that the funny thing about that speech which Cherie pointed out to me afterwards, where they slow clapped me and sort of drove me off the stage was that it was a speech about good manners! I remember at my very first party conference speech before I was leader when I had a teleprompter half way through the thing went into reverse! That was a bad moment! Its one of those things that is important to learn, I think you’re a better communicator if you know what you want to say.
What are the common characteristics of the great leaders?
Well, with all the other things I’ve been mentioning about leadership, I think there’s one other thing that’s really important about leadership: you’ve got to be optimistic. You know, it’s like, when you get on an airplane, the last thing you want to see is a depressed pilot. You know what I mean! You want to see the guy with something to live for. You don’t want him to seem all downcast and depressed. It’s the same with leadership of society or a community or a country: people want to feel that there’s some hope there. All the leaders I met at the civic society level were all people who had an optimistic spirit. So everyone else would be despondent and say nothing could be done, and these were the people that say it can be done, what’s more I’m going to do it!
So, faith in the modern world?
What is vital for us is to make faith part of the future. And the place of interfaith is really that – I’m a Christian and I will remain a Christian. Somebody else will be a Muslim or a Hindu or Jew or Buddhist, whatever. Because of the way the world works today, globalisation is pushing people together. Physically, through migration. Virtually, because of the internet. We’ve got to learn to respect and live with one another. And we’ve got to learn to do that across the faith divide. It’s not to make me any less of a Christian or them any less of a Muslim. But it does mean that we need to create a culture, if you like, and an atmosphere of mutual respect and toleration that allows us to live together peacefully, and allows us to recognise the sense that we are all God’s children. My foundation is designed to do that, but it’s also, we have schools programs and university programs, and there’s about twenty different countries today. It’s grown largely over the past three years. The other thing is to try to make the idea of faith important for the future. You see, for a long period of time, what people thought was that as society became more developed, as we became more prosperous, that faith would be relegated, that it would become a kind of relic of the past. It’s what ignorant people do but not what an educated civilized people do.
I think a world without faith would be a world on the road to tragedy and disaster. I really believe that. The essence of our faith besides all the things we believe about Jesus Christ and his place in our lives its also fundamentally a belief there is something bigger and more important than you. That you are not the only thing that matters that there is something greater and transcendent and I think that essential obligation of humility for humanity is deeply important, it’s what allows us to make progress, its what keeps us from ideology or thought processes that then treat human beings as if they were secondary to some political purpose. I think for politicians particularly its very important to realise that faith and reason are aligned and faith is part of our future not simply part of our past and the more it is part of our future the more confident I would be that we would be decent custodians of the planet and decent citizens of the world.
One of the things you’re doing is tackling global poverty. I think that’s something that all faiths can work together on.
One of the great things we done in the programs that we run is we don’t sit down and talk about theology. What we like to do is get people to do things. So we have education programs that link schools across the world of different faiths.
We also have a great program, which is to try and fight malarial. Malaria in Africa kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. It is preventable. Our society used to have malaria in the old days but we drove it out. We can drive it out in Africa. What the UN campaign has done is provide the funds for the bed nets and the medication but what we often don’t have in these African countries are health clinics and hospitals where people can go and learn about how to prevent malaria and how to use the bed nets and how to apply the medication so what we’ve done, and we started in Sierra Leone, where we’ve got the Churches in the Mosques to be the centres for the teaching on how you combat malaria. So what we do is we train up the Priests and the Imams, they then go out into the community with a whole load of volunteers. In the last 6 months we’ve reached almost 800,000 people and it is having a dramatic effect on the reduction of malaria. We now obviously want to take this program elsewhere.
The great thing for me is, quite apart from the impact on malaria, is that we are showing people a face of faith that is about human compassion and service. That’s really important for people to understand, One of the things that we need to do within our community is to go out and tell people what we are doing and why we are doing it and the single best thing you could do is to show it by example. Its not words in the end that will convince people. It’s action.
You’ve taken on some big global giants, Global Poverty, faith in the modern world another big one is peace in the Middle East. How’s that going to happen?
Well…Recently I came back from what is my 83rd visit to Israel and Palestine since leaving office, although as my wife said to me, it’s not actually the amount of visits that you make it’s the progress that counts, which I didn’t think was remarkably supportive actually but I see what she means! The answer is: we’re trying hard. We are doing so in the context of a revolution around the region and this turmoil in the Middle East is going to carry on and the question with all these revolutions is not where they begin but where they end. Religion is a huge dimension to all of this and you really can’t understand that region unless you can understand the importance of that religion. In the Israel-Palestine context we are trying to get face-to-face negotiations going again. I won’t go into all the details of it but its quite challenging. I am also convinced that one aspect of this, particularly with an issue like Jerusalem which is possibly the hardest of the issues in the whole business to resolve, without the faith dimension is going to be pretty hard to resolve. One of the things that’s great about doing this job is that I look out from my window there and see the Holy City. It’s fantastic to be there but you’re aware of the fact that it matters enormously not just to Jews and Muslims but to Christians also. There is no concept of peace there that doesn’t involve the ability of all of us to worship in our own way in the Holy City. So I’m also trying to get the different representative of Judaism, Islam and Christianity to work together so that we can come up with an idea of how we can realise that they will all have their place there. It’s a wonderful thing to be in the Holy Land. If you’ve never been you must go because it’s actually quite a small piece of territory but it’s a great place.
Let me pick up on that, the temptation. What are the temptations for leaders?
How long have you got? The biggest temptation is Hubris probably. The Greeks were right about that, its usually followed by nemesis.
How do you deal with Hubris? How do you deal with pride?
Well sometimes you deal with it by experiences that re-teach you the lesson of humility. What you have to understand is that you’re never as clever as you think you are. One of the things I say to people who are thinking of taking on a position of leadership is there are 2 things you’ve got to overcome. Don’t think that because you feel a bit insecure of you’re lacking in self-confidence or you’re not quite sure how you’re going to manage that there’s anything wrong with that all people think that. No matter how self confident someone appears there’s no leader I’ve ever met that in their heart of hearts isn’t nervous and anxious and worried and all the rest of it I was exactly like that. That’s one risk, you have to have the self-belief in one way or the courage or the character to overcome that anxiety.
Then the other part of leadership is to have the self-awareness not to let that tip into thinking ‘I know best’ and that’s hard to do sometimes. Leadership has that temptation with it. One of the things I found my faith helped me to do as a leader is also to recognise that in the end you are a human being with flaws and frailty. There is a model of leadership to which you can aspire but you will never fully achieve and therefore keep always in the back of your mind you’re never as good as you think you are.
What would be your advice to young leaders as they embark on a lifetime of leadership?
I would say, wake up every morning with a sense of purpose. The most horrible thing in life would be not to wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose and energy. Life is a great gift to us, we have to use it. I think last time we spoke I spoke about the parable of the talents and I really believe in that. I think that on this journey of leadership, and it is a journey, you will get many knocks and many difficulties along the way but if you are aspiring to or exercising leadership you’re doing so because you have a purpose in life and that’s a fantastic thing. I would do it with a bit of joy as well. Funnily enough, after all my 10 years as Prime Minister I’m not a cynic at all, I hope I’m realistic in many circumstances but I’m not a cynic. Cynicism is the opposite of everything that gets done in the world. Communicate with the people you’re leading some sense of the joy of changing things for the better, changing lives for the better changing your community for the better. Have some sense of what and what an enormous privilege it is to be given the change to lead and to make things better. There is no more wonderful thing than to be engaged in that journey. No matter how many difficulties and obstacles you encounter along the way if you’re a young person and you’re getting to that point where you think can I really do it, have I got what it takes to be a leader? Realise that you do, that what is required to bring it out in you is to have some faith in yourself and some faith in your purpose in life and realise that to be able to each morning you get up to think, I’ve got a purpose, its Gods purpose if you are inspired to be a religious leader in your community, but even if its just changing your community in whatever way to get up and feel that that is what awaits you in that day. It’s a wonderful feeling to have and its deep inside each human being in spirit and it needs to be brought out and when you bring it out and you do it with joy and some optimism I think we are achieving God’s purpose in whatever small way so do it and go for it and be proud you’re doing it is my advice.
You can find out more about the event by reading the Press Associations, "Religion Deeply Important says Tony Blair at Leadership Conference with Nicky Gumbel."