Gordon Brown’s Downfall: 6 Career Lessons For Us All
Here in the UK this week, we’ve seen the Prime Minister Gordon Brown step down from office. After losing last week’s general election, he has been replaced by the first coalition government in the UK for over 30 years.
Just 18 months ago Brown was playing an impressive role in leading global efforts to manage the financial crisis. Yet when it came to the election, he failed to impress the public.
While there were many policy and political factors that led to his downfall, a key part of his defeat and his exit from politics was due to Gordon Brown himself – his style and approach.
Here are 6 career lessons you can learn from Brown’s election campaign and subsequent downfall:
1. You need both style AND substance
Throughout the election campaign, Brown kept reiterating: “if this campaign is about style over substance – then count me out. I’m a man of substance, not a PR or marketing man.”
Tough luck Gordon – like it or not, you’re in the marketing business. We all are. Brown, like many people, failed to actively manage his personal brand.
Modern politics demands that you have both style and substance. Yes, you need knowledge, talent and the ability to deliver results. But you also need to be able to engage with people, market yourself, sell yourself and your ideas. Something which has been a constant struggle for Brown during his premiership.
The very same applies in business and to your career. You can no longer say “oh I’ll just keep my head down, focus on doing a good job and let my results and resume do the talking.”
If that’s your approach then I wish you well – but I suspect you won’t reach your potential. Your personal brand and how you convey yourself to others plays a huge part in your success. Are you managing your brand or are you leaving it to chance?
2. Be Transparent
One of the key setbacks during the election campaign for Gordon Brown was the so called “Bigot-Gate” affair where Brown was caught referring to an elderly member of the public as a bigot in his car (…but forgetting that he was still wired up to a television microphone and so the whole country and world found out what he really thought of the person he had just spoken to on camera).
Yes, it was a huge PR blunder. But it wasn’t Gordon Brown’s lack of media or PR skills which got him into trouble, but his lack of transparency.
People forgive screw-ups and quirks, but rarely forget ‘falseness.’
How transparent are you? How much do people trust you and like doing business with you because you’re the same ‘on stage/on camera’ as you are off it?
3. Embrace New Media
The big news in the recent election campaign was the dramatic surge of the third party (Liberal Democrats) due to the performance of their leader Nick Clegg at the TV election debates. A relatively unknown leader 6 weeks ago, Clegg was the best performer in the TV debates and this resulted in a surprising surge in his popularity in a very short span of time.
And today Clegg has been appointed to become the Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government – illustrating the speed with which a strong media profile can build a following and support.
Gordon Brown meanwhile was typically the weakest performer in the TV debates – something which directly impacted on his ratings. Regardless of the fact that he didn’t really enjoy them, performing well in media debates is part of a modern political campaign.
Whilst your own career is not played out on national television, an increasing part of your future career success will be influenced by the impact of all the new media platforms that have arrived. Blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more to come.
Like Brown, choose to ignore them and you’ll be in trouble. An unknown like Nick Clegg will quickly build brand presence and credibility in your niche or your organisation at your expense.
So learn to embrace them and learn to adapt to a changing world so that you’re far better placed to succeed and manage your destiny.
4. Remember: Attitude and Flexibility Trump Talent
Despite being defeated in last week’s election, there was still a small chance that Gordon Brown’s Labour Party could have been part of a new coalition government by securing a pact with the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg. Especially as politically and ideologically they are much closer than Nick Clegg and the Conservative leader (and now Prime Minister) David Cameron.
But if press reports are to be believed, Nick Clegg has always found Gordon Brown difficult to work with. Sometimes slightly patronising, a little aggressive, awkward – and generally just ‘difficult.’ So if press reports are correct, Brown’s inability to adapt his style went against him.
I see this in organisations all the time. People with less experience and less talent go much further than others simply because they are easier to work with. Flexible, open-minded people who are likeable will always seem more attractive than ‘difficult’ people.
How easy are you to work with? How easy is it to do business with you?
5. Be Authentic
Brown’s natural personality and style has never been outwardly gregarious and ’smiley’ like his predecessor Tony Blair. But during the election campaign, Brown suddenly began smiling in an attempt to be warmer and more accepted by people.
Or rather, he put on a ridiculous false smile (probably prompted by his PR team) which put people off him rather than warm to him. That’s because the big smile just wasn’t him. He wasn’t being himself – he was trying to be a version of Tony Blair.
Instead, he should have focused on being the best version of Gordon Brown instead of trying to be a second-rate version of Tony Blair. To succeed in securing the right roles and progressing in your career, you need to be the best version of yourself.
So walk, talk, dress and act in a way that is consistent to who you are whilst being relevant to your audience – not how you ‘think’ you should be presenting yourself. If your target audience can’t accept the best version of you – it’s time to find a new audience or do something different.
6. Avoid being a square peg in a round hole
Without trying to sound like a political pundit (or indeed make any political points), Gordon Brown was, in my opinion, always going to struggle to keep his post as Prime Minister in the long term. Not because he lacked experience or talent, but because he was a square peg in a round hole.
Modern politics (like professional sport in fact) requires leaders (and sports coaches) who are engaging, inspirational and media savvy. We may not like that fact that ’style’ is now as important as ’substance’ – but it’s a fact of life in today’s world – so get used to it.
In my opinion, Gordon Brown had all the skills and strengths to be a great ‘number 2′ to a leader (as he was to Tony Blair), but being the leader in the current era didn’t suit his natural style as he isn’t a ‘front man’.
The same happens in business all the time. We have a great number 2’s promoted to the number 1 role – but they often don’t live up to expectations because the needs of the role and business don’t match the skills and strengths of the new leader. It’s a classic mistake in sales teams too. Successful sales people get promoted into leadership roles but very often become poor leaders.
They’re square pegs in round holes because they pursued the ego-driven need to progress higher up the ladder instead of focusing on playing to their strengths.
How about you? Are you in a role which plays to your natural strengths and style or are you a square peg in a round hole?
Politically, I’ve not got any strong opinions either way about Gordon Brown. But as an individual he seemed like a talented, decent person, committed to working hard for his country – and so I wish him well for the future.
But as we all know, in the modern world, talent and a hard work don’t guarantee success.
To able to progress your career and stand out from the crowd, you need to be able to engage with diverse groups of people, be flexible, build a strong personal brand and convey your value proposition to a wide audience. Something which Brown failed to do consistently and which ultimately accelerated his downfall.