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Caution key for leaders who put predecessors on the podium

14 Apr 2015

London Business School expert warns leaders to proceed with caution

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Leaders who put their predecessors on the podium should proceed with caution, a London Business School expert says. 

Richard Hytner, Adjunct Professor of Marketing, London Business School and author of Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows, made the comments in a Huffington Post blog earlier today. 

His comments follow Tony Blair’s return last week as part of Labour’s election campaign strategy, in which Blair made a keynote speech on the danger of a British exit from the EU under a second Conservative term. However, was Ed Miliband smart in inviting the former Prime Minister back to speak? 
 
Hytner, who is also Deputy Chairman, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, said: “Ed Miliband took one of the more controversial risks of his election campaign last week. The big risk the Labour leader took was the Blair risk, inviting the former PM to take to the podium on his behalf to dispense another well-polished, perfectly pitched and impassioned monologue to the masses.” 

Miliband’s decision to wheel out the much unloved, opinion-dividing former leader may have been questioned by many, especially when some of the polls were hinting that Miliband's boldness in policy choice and clarity of beliefs were just beginning to pay off. Hytner believes it was a carefully planned strategy.  

“Inviting Blair to shine a glimmer of electoral limelight on a single issue - Europe - was carefully judged by David Axelrod and Miliband's campaign team. Blair, they know, is as queasy about visible alignment with Miliband on most issues of substance as Miliband is aware of the electoral hazard of too close an association with Blair.”
 
Hytner suggests Gordon Brown, who made a similar and successful speech last year at the time of the Scottish referendum, may have provided inspiration for the move by Miliband.  

“In his speech, Blair talked of the near death experience for the UK of the Scottish referendum, when the SNP looked like they might win the day. The avoidance of that death in large part can be attributed to the excellent oratory of another former Labour leader and Blair's own successor, Gordon Brown. Until that brilliant intervention, Brown's leadership reputation was seriously damaged by his failing in the highest office and he had been all but abandoned by his party.” 

Hytner argues that Blair and Brown offer two examples of when it can make sense to bring the leader back in from the cold. 

“In both cases, the interventions were discreet by design, a swift in and out, before too much lingering resentment could resurface of decisions that went awry under their leadership.”

However, the same cannot be applied to every case Hytner warns.

“Hillary Clinton is about to find out, however, whether it always makes sense to draw on the deposits of goodwill felt for former leaders. One of them, President Obama, gave Mrs Clinton's candidacy the thumbs-up yesterday with trademark generosity of spirit. The President described Mrs Clinton as a formidable candidate when she stood against him in 2008, and an outstanding Secretary of State in his first term in office: "I think she would be an excellent president."

“One suspects President Obama knows full well that, his light touch endorsement made, Hillary Clinton, if she is to take his place in the White House, will need to demonstrate clearer blue water between them than she covered in her autobiography "Tough Choices". 

Hytner believes it is the other former President, her husband, who represents the bigger challenge for Mrs Clinton. 

“Is Mr Clinton capable of making a contribution when even a cameo-only appearance is likely to steal the show? It is more Mr Clinton's magnetism than Mrs Clinton's lack of stature (she has plenty) that suggests there should be no more than the merest hint of Bill in Hillary's shadow. To deny the dynastic connection would be foolish, to play it right down is a surer way for Mrs Clinton to win. Voters know who the former First Lady's First Husband will be. Should Jeb Bush win the Republican nomination, he, too, will face the same dynastic draw-down dilemma. If you were managing Jeb Bush's campaign, just how much visibility would you give his dad?”