Sharing the challenges of leadership
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org April 12, 2013 11:44PM
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Tony Blair warms the crowd with a little humor Friday night in the Herrick Chapel at Judson University in Elgin. Blair served as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern IreFland from May 1997 to June 2007. The event was the third World Leaders Forum the university held. April 12, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 15, 2013 6:45AM
ELGIN — The problem with being a political leader is explaining to people, at the end of the day, that “you’re an Earthling,” according to Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain.
“You come to this situation as a human being, trying to make up your mind,” Blair said.
And you have to be prepared, after your mind is made up, to do what you think is right. Whether it actually was the right thing to do will be up to others to judge, he said.
That was true for Blair, making the judgment call as prime minister to get involved in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, he said. And that’s true now for world leaders facing escalating nuclear threats from North Korea and conflict in Syria, he said.
Blair’s comments came Friday evening at the third World Leaders Forum in the Herrick Chapel at Judson University.
About 650 people attended the sold-out community event, mostly the questions and answers with the former prime minister; another 150 attended a VIP reception beforehand where Blair delivered the keynote “Leadership Insights: Faith, Power and the Post Modern World,” according to Judson officials.
The World Leaders Forum, sponsored by the city of Elgin and several area businesses, brings world leaders to the Judson campus “to inspire change, to create a lasting legacy and to invest in tomorrow’s leaders,” according to Judson Trustee Nate Adams, who led the question-and-answer session.
Blair follows Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, who spoke last year, and former U.S. President George W. Bush, who spoke at the inaugural forum in 2011.
The annual forum also raises funds, half for student scholarships and half going to the creation of an Entrepreneurship Studies program at the private Christian university, according to Judson spokesperson Mary Dulabaum. She declined to say how close the university is to funding that program, but she said that will be a “multi-year” project.
Blair was prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007. In that time, he led public-services reform, introduced a national minimum wage, oversaw the London 2012 Games bid and was instrumental in the Northern Ireland peace process, Judson said.
He now oversees a network of companies and charities that operate in more than 20 countries. His work varies from advising leaders in Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan, Kuwait and elsewhere to promote understanding and respect for the world’s major religions.
On Friday, Blair commented at length on current events, reflecting on the late Margaret Thatcher’s time in office as prime minister and what he called her biggest challenge: the collapse of communism. He contrasted that with the challenges world leaders now face, not of “vast empire against empire” but of “rogue states,” he said.
“The hardest thing now is how you deal with a threat that is not conventional and asymmetrical and very hard to grapple with,” he said. “I think the one thing it has in common with revolutionary communism is it’s going to be a long, hard struggle.”
He spoke about Syria and North Korea, which he said “seems so crazy and out of kilter with anything rational” but is “a real threat and danger, and it’s going to require us to be diplomatically very smart and also militarily very strong.” And he stressed the U.S. is one of few countries with the ability to carry the responsibility of shaping the world.
The former prime minister also took questions about Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, saying he thought the country was better off without dictator Saddam Hussein in power. He’d come to office with a “completely domestic agenda,” he said, but “events come and things change, and I found myself in four military conflicts.”
“When you look at the ghastliness in Syria, you think, ‘What would happen in Iraq if Saddam still was in power?’ ” he said.
Blair spoke candidly about his cordial relationships with Queen Elizabeth, as well as presidents Bush and Bill Clinton, whom he called his “political soulmate.”
He stressed the importance for the president and prime minister to “get on well together.” That wasn’t hard for him, he said, noting political parties in both the U.S. and Britain are becoming increasingly partisan, even when the public isn’t and would like to see politicians work together.
When asked, he also offered his advice to U.S. President Barack Obama, pointing out political leaders start their terms most popular and least competent and leave least popular and most competent. After winning re-election, leaders know their time in office is limited, they have to decide what they can get done in that time, what would better their countries, and they have the competence to do it, he said.
He also made what he called an embarrassing admission: “The great problem you have is they don’t give you any training for this job.”
Blair also shared advice with students, noting many will change jobs and even professions throughout their lives and will have to “adjust and adapt throughout time.” That’s what makes so important the “education of what I would call ‘the open mind,’ ” he said.
“Education above all else, I think is the key to our future. ... The biggest injustice you can saddle a child with is poor education,” he said.
The former prime minister had advice for business leaders as well, whose job he said is “like any position of leadership.” And for those looking for ways to live out their faith, he said, “In the end, it’s about showing compassion and love for others. It’s not complicated for me.”
That’s part of the reason he started the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, he said: to show faith can be a powerful force for good, even when religion almost always is reported negatively.
He even had some thoughts for Judson President Elect Gene Crume, who had noted in his introduction for the prime minister it was “no pressure” for the end of his first week at the university.
Blair remembered people crying as he walked into 10 Downing St. just hours after his predecessor had left. The custom, he said, is for people to applaud the old prime minister out of office and the new prime minister in.