Book Report: Lessons from the Top

Lessons from the Top“All successful leadership stories involve three parts.  First, the leader has to explain ‘Who am I?’, as a person. Then he or she outlines ‘Who are we?’ as a group to followers or potential followers.  Finally the leader tells us ‘Where will my leadership take us?’ in our common purpose.  A convincing leader will make these stories buzz in our heads in a way that is unforgettable.” (Lessons from the Top – p2)

Title: Lessons from the Top

Author: Gavin Esler

Publisher: Profile Books

Publication Date: 2012

Origin: On one of my many trips through Heathrow, I saw Lessons from the Top in the bookstore.  I’ve recognized that I’m a poor storyteller, and figured that this book might help me improve in that regard.

Summary: The subtitle of Lessons from the Top (at least in the UK version) is How Successful Leaders Tell Stories to Get Ahead – and Stay There.  Esler explains how, at a high level, all successful leadership stories consist of three parts: an origin story that explains who the leader is, followed by an explanation of who we (the group) are, and finally a section that explains the common purpose for the group.  Sounds simple enough, right?

While the high-level lesson is relatively straightforward, what makes this into a solid book is that Esler goes into further detail on many components of the story.  For instance, he explains how the precise choice of words can influence the audience, and he provides instructions on how to appropriately respond to attacks against your leadership story and how to effectively undermine a rival’s story.

A nice touch is that at the end of every chapter, Esler summarizes key takeaways in terms of a “Leadership Lesson” and a “Followership Lesson”, the latter of which makes some compelling points for followers and audiences that will let them critically examine the leadership stories they are hearing.

My Take: Since purchasing this book last year, I’ve been eager to read it, but it just always seemed to get bumped by something more pressing.  Now that I’ve finally read it, I can tell you that the beauty of Lessons from the Top is the depth and richness that Esler brings, and the real-world examples he has chosen to support his points.  He’s chosen dozens of relevant instances from primarily recent history (some that stand out in particular to me are the stories about Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, and the tale of how London won the competition to host the 2012 Summer Olympics), and skillfully supports the main thesis of each chapter with these to really drive the points home.  The chapters themselves zoom in on particular sub-topics, like how to counter a scandal and how to effectively manage your reputation in the face of attacks against your own leadership story.

The straightforward manner in which Esler presents and supports his points ingrains within you a manual that will help you effectively craft your own story. I’ve already applied the lessons in some recent presentations I’ve delivered, and I’m confident that I’ll find further applications outside the specific realm of a leadership story.

Read This Book If: You aspire to be an effective leader or want to critically evaluate leaders with which you’re presented.

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Notes and Quotes:

  • p1: “Leaders have to possess many different skills, but without the ability to tell stories, they would have no followers and would cease to lead anyone.”
  • p2: All successful leadership stories involve three parts.  First, the leader has to explain ‘Who am I?’, as a person. Then he or she outlines ‘Who are we?’ as a group to followers or potential followers.  Finally the leader tells us ‘Where will my leadership take us?’ in our common purpose.  A convincing leader will make these stories buzz in our heads in a way that is unforgettable.”
  • p4: “The indispensable skill for all leaders in business, politics, sport or any significant field of human endeavour is the ability to create followers and communicate effectively with them.”
  • p19: “The secret weapon of storytellers throughout the centuries has been to create a story which sticks in the mind, just as a successful musician will write a pop song with a melody so powerful that you cannot get it out of your head.  Germans call this an ‘Ohrwurm’, literally an ‘earworm’, which won’t stop wriggling, whether you like it or not, until it worms its way into your brain.”
  • p22, quoting screenwriter and creative writing teacher Robert McKee: “Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.  Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal.”
  • p31: “Storytelling is never neutral or objective…You can no more separate the storyteller from his version of the story than separate the dancer from the dance.”
  • p35: “The power of leadership is the power to tell and shape stories about yourself (‘dream’, ‘hard work’, ‘proud’) and about your opponent (‘crisis’, ‘failure’, ‘traitors’) using the vocabulary that you choose.  Choosing the vocabulary means choosing the ground on which you will fight.”
  • p36, …but watch out, because: “As soon as the general public begins to wonder if such an emotive vocabulary is being mis-used, then it fails.”
  • p39: “Any significant act of leadership has three parts: objective, strategy, and tactics.  Successful leadership means getting these three parts in the correct order, and understanding how they relate to each other.” Read more in “A Golden Rule of Leadership”.
  • p42 makes reference to Ronald Reagan’s speech after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, referring to it as “one of the most movingly delivered pieces of oratory of the twentieth century.”
  • p47, a Followership Lesson: “Listen to the words carefully.  Look at the pictures even more carefully.  Be aware that these words and pictures are not accidents.  They are like dog whistles.  The aim is to make you salivate or bark, without necessarily explaining why you should.”
  • p51: “There has been a shift from a media focused on substance, competence and policy…to a media obsessed at all levels with character, confession and charisma (or lack of it).  Above all we have shifted towards a search for ‘authenticity’, the desire to read and hear the ‘real’ story behind our ‘real’ leaders and their ‘real’ lives, to find out what they are ‘really’ like.  This opens the door to significant manipulation by media advisers as they offer to trade access to the leader in exchange for favourable coverage.”
  • p52: “When the form of information delivery changes, so does its content.”
  • p75 inspired led this post,  Of politics, leadership, and marketing
  • p78, on how to best handle counter-stories (anticipate and preempt or reverse): “The genius of Bush‘s advisor Karl Rove and others in the Bush team was to take the worst counter-story criticisms of Bush and use them against his opponents with all the confidence of a skilled Judo fighter.”
  • p80, quoting Tony Blair’s autobiography: “…if you aren’t naturally a bloke people would like to have a beer with and you’re running for office, it is a problem.” I suspect that I’d be boring, and therefore fail this ‘test’.
  • p86…would this be applicable to general marketing? “The most ruthless leaders understand that if they can call into question the leadership story of a rival by separating ‘Who am I?’ from the values of ‘Who are we?’, they can fatally undermine their rival’s leadership.”
  • p90: “As Blair knew well, visitors are always looking for stories of ‘niceness’ or ‘nastiness’ in leaders, and such stories travel further and faster than policy papers on inflation or control of immigration.”
  • p94, even the most simple pictures or images can make an ‘authentic’ impression
  • p97: “Part of any leader’s public storytelling method has to be the ability to project confidence and competence, whatever his private doubts.  A degree of acting ability is necessary to deliver the message…”
  • p101 reinforces the importance of acting
  • p106: “…a leader cannot survive if his followers come to see him and his stories as inauthentic.”
  • p109, quoting Peter Gruber from his book Tell to Win, on the importance of violating expectations: “Anybody who’s ever read a novel or watched a movie knows that a story that fails to deliver surprise is dead on arrival.  The same rule holds for stories told in person to business audiences.  The shock value may be as subtle as a shrug or a pang of regret.  Not every story needs thrills and chills, but without some surprise, you’ll lose your listener’s attention.”
  • p111: a great story about Chilean President Michelle Bachelet
  • p113: what message/image do I want my audience to see?
  • p126: fantastic example of Bill Gates giving an audience a STAR (something they’ll always remember) moment, releasing a swarm of mosquitoes into a crowded hall while speaking about Malaria
  • p127, on the importance of including your followers in your decision-making: “They (the Olympic selection committee members) were flattered and delighted, especially when Blair asked them humbly for their ‘advice’ on how best to secure the London bid.”
  • p129, I wish more politicians did this, instead of just clinging stupidly and stubbornly to previous positions (and I wish voters would respond appropriately when a leaders changes his or her mind in response to new information or a new context): “But how does a political party or business change successfully, without scaring away existing supporters or customers?  One way is to appeal selectively to past traditions while finding a new story and a new storyteller.”
  • p133: too long to type out, but two great examples to support the previous quote; one about the Republican party’s “compassionate conservatism” and one about Deng Xiao Peng‘s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”
  • p134 partly inspired this post: Getting engaged (with your audience)
  • p150: “Appearing to be new while simultaneously appealing to the past is one of the greatest storytelling skills of real leaders.”
  • p157, I suppose the lesson is to take improv lessons or practice some stand-up comedy! “Humour not only makes a leader sound witty and clever, it is a way of countering a counter-story without appearing to take it too seriously.”
  • p167, reinforcing what was said on p86: “The counter-stories that are truly damaging are not those about policies, but those that undermine the leader’s character, attacking the basic leadership question ‘Who am I?'”
  • p177, on the importance of practice: “Telling stories is like flying an aircraft.  However much you know in theory, there is no substitute for actually doing it.”
  • p177, reinforcing the repeated theme that effective storytellers leave the audience feeling like the story was crafted just for them: “During his time at GE, Reagan found out which stories worked for a live audience and which did not.  He made every speech seem as if it was tailored for is audience, even if it was a piece of boilerplate rhetoric recycled a thousand times.”  So it’s definitely worth finding little ways to tweak content to suit the local audience.
  • p177, a tad manipulative but apparently effective: “Academic research shows that business people who want to ensure compliance with surveys or requests for assistance are far more likely to achieve their goals if they stick a yellow Post-it note with an informal but personalized appeal attached.  The social scientist Randy Gardner who carried out the research concluded ‘that the more personalized you make a request, the more likely you’ll be to get someone to agree to it.'”
  • p196: “When it comes to managing a scandal, temperament is more important than intelligence.”
  • p199, this is at least the second book I have that quotes Ozymandias, the other being Collapse
  • p200-201 led to this post, The Deadly Sins of Leadership
  • p206: “For my purposes, what is important is that (Fred) Goodwin, like Tony Hayward, disastrously confused objective, strategy and tactics.  He never told a leadership story that could cope with failure.  His tactics were based on ruthlessly cutting costs.  His strategy involved taking over other banks.  His objective was to become a world player in banking.  But somewhere along the line he failed to see that the true objective of any great bank is to be trusted, reliable and, of course, solvent.”
  • p208 makes the point that truly successful companies and individuals have grander pursuits than profit; the profit is a side-effect, and of course a welcome and planned one, of achieving some greater objective…take that, shareholders!
  • p208, on why it’s critical that the leader have an altruistic story: “If a leader’s ‘Who am I?’ story is so egotistical that ‘Who are we?’ means we are dupes or servants of the great leader, then ‘What is our common purpose?’ will be reducible to doing the leader’s bidding so he can prosper.”
  • p211, a good little proverb on why abrupt enormous change is often doomed to fail: “As the saying goes, the best way to ride a horse is in the direction the horse is going.  Only by first aligning yourself with the direction of the horse is it possible to then slowly and deliberately steer it where you’d like to go.”
  • p212, on why Clinton apologized for a haircut incident that was entirely manufactured by the media and completely without merit: “The president of the United States had apologized for an inconvenience that he had not caused.  Why?  Because the storytelling problem, as the Clinton team understood it, was not about facts but about perception.”
  • p215, and I suspect this is applicable to organizations, products, etc. just as well as it is to individuals: “…of all the What NOT to Do mistakes a leader can make, the worst in my view is to let your enemies define who you are and what you stand for.  That’s your job.  If you can’t do it, you’re not really a leader.”
  • p222, another reason why leaders must be comfortable with change: “Leadership means change.  If everything is fine just the way it is, you don’t need change and you don’t need leaders to help you do it.”
  • p237, using the example of Ian Paisley to illustrate when and why a leader should change: “But when the time came, like all shrewd leaders, he was willing to abandon his tactics and strategy to secure his objective.”
  • p240, continuing the Paisley example: “Forty years of saying no meant that there was a degree of trust from his supporters when he finally said yes.”
  • p241 (and the whole chapter, really) spawned this post: Changing yourself, as a leader
  • p246, while discussing the positive reaction to the changes made by new BBC director general Greg Dyke, in his ‘Cut the Crap’ initiative: “It is difficult to overstate the effect on a large organization of someone who sounded like he actually cared about his staff, cared that they were happy and understood that fixing minor irritations had a disproportionate effect on morale much greater than the size of the problem itself.”
  • p246-247: “One of the core skills of leadership, in other words, is not just to recognise the need for change but to have the story-telling skills…to bring about change by telling a story appropriate for changing times.”
  • p249, while summarizing the main lesson of the Clinton, Dyke, and Merkel examples: “All three have many diverse leadership qualities, but their success in bringing people with them, in creating and keeping their followers, is based on one quality above all: the indispensable ability to tell a compelling story.”

“Above all, stories matter.  We all tell stories.  We all listen to stories.  People remember stories told by you and about you.  They define who you are in the minds of others, for good or ill.  The only person who can make sure people remember the best stories about you, is you.” (Lessons from the Top – p252)


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Advertising, Books, Leadership, Marketing
15 comments on “Book Report: Lessons from the Top
  1. […] reminiscent of Lessons from the Top: “So what make people want to follow a leader? We look for three key traits: The ability to […]

  2. […] of occasions (to any aspiring leaders out there, I particularly recommend Gavin Esler’s Lessons from the Top). So, needless to say, Mark’s session ‘had me from hello’, as they […]

  3. […] Lessons from the Top: How Successful Leaders Tell Stories to Get Ahead – and Stay There (Gavin Esler) […]

  4. […] busy reading Lessons from the Top, by Gavin Esler.  In one passage, he describes how Alastair Campbell explained at a conference […]

  5. […] Everyone has an origin story, but I kind’ve skipped over the first 18 years with a pair of slides. In a piece of misdirection that is hilarious to me and probably annoying to everyone else, I showed a picture of the New York skyline with a caption “I grew up near The Big Apple” before flipping to this slide: […]

  6. […] xxvii talks about being “authentic” and “genuine”, reminding me of Lessons from the Top […]

  7. […] profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.” (Lessons from the Top, […]

  8. […] have to believe it to buy it.” (p8)  This rule reminded me of one of the points in Lessons from the Top: “…a leader cannot survive if his followers come to see him and his stories as […]

  9. […] we might get challenged and have to defend our reputations (Lessons from the Top devotes several chapters to this).  The exact strategy depends on the scenario, but a consistent […]

  10. […] busy reading Lessons from the Top, by Gavin Esler.  In one passage, he describes how Alastair Campbell explained at a conference […]

  11. […] I mentioned in a previous post, I’m busy reading Lessons from the Top, by Gavin Esler.  I’m quite enjoying it so far, having marked several passages for later […]

  12. […] it repeated many times about Clinton, and sometimes about other leaders, too.  Most recently, in Lessons from the Top, Gavin Esler mentioned it: “The British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, a seasoned former […]

  13. […] but relatively fewer listing traits that are detrimental to leadership.  Recently, while reading Lessons from the Top, I came across just such a list.  On page 200, Esler introduces us to Financial Times (FT) […]

  14. […] must be comfortable with change.  As Gavin Esler puts it, in Lessons from the Top, “Leadership means change.  If everything is fine just the way it is, you don’t need […]

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