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Tony Benn – he encouraged us

March 17, 2014

Tony Benn, former cabinet minister, veteran left-wing campaigner and an iconic figure of our age, died on Friday aged 88. Benn was the country’s youngest MP when elected in 1950 in Bristol South East, aged 25, and in 1966, aged 41, he became the youngest member of the Cabinet when he was appointed Minister of Technology.

He also served as Secretary of State for Industry, and Secretary of State for Energy. By the time he left the Commons in 2001, he was the longest-serving MP in the history of the Labour Party. He had an avuncular manner, unshakeable beliefs and an abiding determination. He held pure socialist inclinations and instincts, a man of principles, obvious humanity and compassion, and great personal warmth.

He was a magnificent orator and political diarist. He was the ultimate conviction politician and polarised opinion. As David Cameron said, He was extraordinarily articulate, which you kind of knew was wrong but you couldn’t kind of fault the logic in it. He made enemies and kept enemies but on the whole I think most people regarded him with a good degree of affection.

We live in an age where technology is core to our lives and taken for granted. However, that was not always the case. Harold Wilson won the 1964 General Election on the basis of embracing the ‘white heat of technology’, and he turned to Benn to deliver it. His achievements in that Wilson Government often get overlooked as commentators cover his later career. He made some of the fundamental shifts in our attitudes happen, embrace technological opportunity and industrial innovations which we still benefit from today.

In the 1964 Government, Benn was Postmaster General where he oversaw the opening of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) and the start of the telecommunications revolution, and the creation of the Post Office Girobank – the first new bank for a century.

Benn was also responsible for the postcode system. In late 1950s, the Post Office had been trialling a method of six-digit alphanumeric codes to sort mail in the Norwich area. In October 1965, under Benn’s watch as Postmaster General, the Post Office extended the system nationally.

Benn introduced the 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences Act that closed down the pirate radio stations, which were transmitting offshore around the coast of Britain. The legislation made it almost impossible for the likes of Radio Caroline to keep going and paved the way for the launch of Radio 1 in September that year.

As Minister of Technology, he had responsibility for the development of Concorde and the formation of International Computers Ltd (ICL) – which traded until acquired by Fujitsu in 2002. The period also saw Government involvement in industrial rationalisation, and the merger of several car companies to form British Leyland, which Benn oversaw.

In the Labour Government of 1974 Benn was Secretary of State for Industry and was the architect of better terms and conditions for workers in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. He was also the architect of legislation enabling worker cooperatives to exist, and reform struggling industries, the best known being Meriden, which kept Triumph Motorcycles in production until 1983.

Benn was also an advocate of learning, and was a driver in the Labour Government that created the Open University. So before he emerged as the voice of the left, he was a hard-working minister, fascinated by technology, who fought hard to create jobs. Benn is known for his radical politics, but he leaves a legacy of uniquely British artefacts marking his vision and appetite for innovation and change.

Benn will be remembered as a man capable of arousing great and contradictory passions among friend and foe alike. A man who was by turns inspiring, infuriating, courageous, occasionally irresponsible and always an amusing speaker with forthright opinions on the big issues of the day. He drove some folks to apoplexy, but I admired so many things about Benn.

So, looking at over the panorama of his time as a high profile political leader, what are the stand-out personal characteristics and attributes that set Benn apart as an individual, the facets and traits you’d look for in a business leader?

Honesty His forthright honesty was a really attractive quality. In a recent interview on the Today programme, he said to presenter James Naughtie: I made every mistake in the book, but making mistakes is how you learn. You look back and, when you’re in a critical mood, you see you made errors of judgement. But as long as you say what you believe and believe what you say – that’s the test of authenticity. A basic tenet of business leadership is down-the-line honesty, at all times.

Values Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for. That was the nature of the man and the principle of his politics. A powerful, fearless, relentless advocate for social justice and people’s rights, Benn’s speeches will continue to have a profound influence on generations to come. His legacy are his values and his decency. In business, leadership has be values-based to have any basis of credibility.

Stimulating He opened people’s eyes and he made people think. What you would learn from Benn was to think for yourself, he was a proponent of developing a questioning mind. He had such clarity of expression, was open-minded and always interested in new ideas. There was something manic about him too, but he had the persuasiveness of someone who has worked it all out to his satisfaction and wants you to share his thinking. A business leader is a leader in hope, just like Benn. I recommend reading his Letters to my Grandchildren. It might just make you stop and think.

Optimism One of the attractive aspects of Benn’s intriguing and complex character was his belief in a positive outcome and solution to all the challenges he discussed. He was an optimist, to put it mildly, yet his experience has not born it out, but he held to it with an obstinacy that was magnificent in its wrong headedness. His 10 volumes of diaries cover more than 60 years of his life and are filled with optimism, hope and expectation.

Conviction He had a rare breed of idealism and common sense that he made his own. To many on the right of the political landscape he was a swivel-eyed man of madness but if you read the tributes on his death, even from some on the hard-right, merit and appreciation eventually shines through – not for the philosophy or ideology, but there is a deep admiration for the power and sincerity of his conviction. Conviction and optimism are two essential traits of an effective business leader. Say what you believe, believe what you say.

Make your mark Benn has had a lasting impact on our lives. He believed in something, an ideological sincerity, a set of principles guiding what was necessary and desirable, and left this as his footprint. Whilst not everyone’s cup of tea, the devotion of advocates and sincere tributes from adversaries that has poured out for him since his passing is not simply nostalgia. He leaves behind a legacy of actions, words and deeds that reflect a life well lived, and of significance. As a leader, having an impact on the business of tomorrow is as important as leading the business of today.

Energiser He was a life-enhancer, a man who fizzed with ideas, who constantly questioned why the world is as it is. To spend time in his company was to go away refreshed. A visit from Benn left one with jetlag. say those close to him. He was a man who, until his health went into decline, had never known a moment’s boredom. As a business leader, what did you do today to make a difference and inspire your team with your energy?

Innovation Benn said I try to operate on two unconnected levels. One on the practical level of action in which I am extremely cautious and conservative. The second is the realm of ideas where I try to be very free.  His contribution to technology and business outlined earlier showed he was a forward thinker. He was always a passionate advocate for new ideas and taking risks in an era of personal ego-led politics.

Be yourself With his trademark pipe, mug of tea and cardigans, this could have left him a fossilised figure of a distant ideological era, but contrary to popular misconceptions, his did evolve. He stood for something more than office and he didn’t pander. That was why he was one of the few people to emerge from an Ali G interview with his dignity intact. There is no point in being in business unless you try to give effect to what you believe, and you say what you believe.

Be remarkable Benn made his mark amongst politicians and ordinary people alike, influential across the political spectrum. This is evident in the hundreds of posts on Twitter paying tribute to him. Although the tweets are threaded with grief at the loss of such an extraordinary man, it is clear his principles and influence live on. He touched so many with his unwavering commitment to the type of politics that would really affect people’s lives. The tributes on Twitter are brimming with emotion. They serve as a moving eulogy to the man. As a business leader, being remarkable is something only others can judge, but you should aspire towards.

Warm in his friendships, fervent in his arguments, harsh in his judgements – and blessed with an obstinacy that was magnificent, Benn was an intriguing, complex and towering figure – and I shall miss him. It is a shock, but not an unexpected one, because though his mind was alert and alive, he had been physically declining for some months.

He was a towering figure, strong willed, fervent in his beliefs and stuck to his guns. I think if you’re going to be committed to doing anything, you really have to care about it, and I suppose that is a romantic idea but that’s how I saw Benn. And, in so doing, he encouraged us. It’s the same in business, a leader has to care and encourage, it’s hearts and minds, not just profit & loss.

If you haven’t read them already, I recommend his diaries. They tell the story of modern British politics from when he entered Parliament for the first time when Churchill was Prime Minister until Blair. In his ninth and final volume of diaries A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine (2013), he saw his life coming to a close, and said, The last entry in my diary will be: ‘St Thomas’s hospital: I’m not feeling very well today’. He even had plans for his gravestone – I’d like it to say: ‘Tony Benn – he encouraged us.’

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