How can a failure be so admired?

Tony Benn - Much Admired Failure Photo Courtesy Matthew Feam

Tony Benn – Much Admired Failure
Photo Courtesy Matthew Feam

Political firebrand Tony Benn has died to a flurry of obituaries and commentary. Within them are two common themes about him and his life. The first is that in spite of his notoriety and ministerial positions, he failed to achieve many, if any, of his political and policy ambitions. Second, that he was, and still is, universally admired and respected.

There are not many politicians that garner dislike, affection and respect in such equal quantities. At one point he was even termed “the most dangerous man in Britain”. So how can a man that generated such opposition and who fought and failed so widely, be so admired? The answer seems to be that he he was honest, acted with utmost integrity, and was always clear about where he stood. You may have vehemently disagreed with him, but you always knew what he believed in and where his values lay.

As a leader, how many of us are equally clear about what we stand for and are prepared to fight for our values? Pragmatism and organisational politics often mean that we hold back from uncompromising values-based positions preferring to sacrifice our beliefs and comprise our values for the sake of achieving a result. The world would collapse if it had too many Benn-type people around.

But how great would it be if we could be better then Benn and achieve both? If we want to up our game as a leader, one path would be to be bolder about what we stand for – clearer about our beliefs and values. It is, of course, easier said than done. And it’s much easier to compromise  than find the ‘win-win’ solution that keeps our values intact but delivers results. But then we probably won’t be as admired as Tony Benn.



  1. Interesting conundrum here, are we saying be popular and achieve little is a sign of good leadership

    I think not! I would say being liked is not the answer. Being respected and recognised for honesty ethics equality and never asking folk to do what you are not prepared to do yourself is perhaps closer to the answer. What does everyone else think?

  2. hpartnership2013 · · Reply

    Great observations. Too often corporate leaders talk a good ‘values’ game, but their behaviour creates mixed messages. They substitute ‘values’ programmes for a clear demonstration of personal values in how they act. And many times they are afraid to be controversial. It’s refreshing when you clearly know what someone stands for (beyond profit, growth or shareholder value).

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