Gavin Esler will be in York for the Festival of Ideas next month to talk about some of the great world leaders he has interviewed down the years. He spoke to STEPHEN LEWIS.

WHATEVER else you might think of Margaret Thatcher, she was a great storyteller, says former Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler.

By that, he doesn't mean she used to sit down with Cabinet colleagues and regale them with tales of her night on the town.

The story Margaret Thatcher told – as all great leaders must – was the story of herself.

Extraordinarily, she told it in just five words. 'The grocer's daughter from Grantham' was how she referred to herself.

"That was very, very clever," says Esler, speaking ahead a visit to York for the Festival of Ideas during which he'll talk about the nature of leadership and his 30 years interviewing the great and the good.

In those five words, she emphasised that she was a daughter, not a son; that her father was a grocer, not part of some establishment elite; and that she was from Grantham, not London. She was a person of the people, in other words: an ordinary woman who'd got where she was by pluck, brains and determination.

There were other elements to the Thatcher 'brand' – the story of herself that she presented to the public. She seized upon a Russian description of her as the Iron Lady and played it for all it was worth. She even changed the way she spoke.

But it was all part of the process of telling the public who voted for her who she was – or at least, who she wanted them to think she was.

It is something all great leaders have to do if they are to succeed, says Esler, who is now one of the presenters on the BBC's News At Five. There is a very simple reason for that. "You cannot be a leader unless you have followers. And you cannot have followers unless you communicate with them."

Leaders have been telling stories ever since Jesus, says Esler.

In his book Lessons From The Top – based on a lifetime of interviewing the great and the good, from Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher to Angelina Jolie and Dolly Parton – he argues that there are three particular 'stories' that any successful leader needs to tell. And they are? "Who am I? Who are we? Where is my leadership going to take us?" Maggie's 'Grocer's daughter from Grantham' was the classic 'who am I' story.

Many of the most successful leaders (though not necessarily the best leaders, Esler concedes) of modern times have had a great 'who am I' story to tell. It didn't necessarily need to have much to do with who they really were.

George W Bush, for example (certainly not a great leader, but a successful one in that he persuaded Americans to elect him to the highest office in the land not once but twice) was a member of America's East Coast elite: his grandfather a senator, his father successively head of theCIA, vice-president, then president. But none of that would have played well with the voting American public, so he managed to sell himself as 'Dubya', the good ole country boy from Texas.

Bill Clinton pulled a similar trick. When he first met him, Esler says, it was before he had even run for the White House. "He told me 'I'm just a boy from Hope'." Hope, Arkansas, that is.

Being able to tell the 'Who am I?' and 'Who are we?' (in which a leader identifies what the group he or she belongs to stands for) stories are necessary conditions for leadership, Esler says; because if a leader can't tell them, he or she can't succeed.

Gordon Brown is a good example of that. "He had a great personal story to tell," Esler says. "All he needed to do was to say 'the reason I don't come across on TV is because I'm blind in one eye from playing rugby, and can't see much out of the other'. But he never told that story."

At the other end of the spectrum, you have Nigel Farage, who has a strong 'who am I?' story – good bloke, enjoys a pint – but arguably not much substance to back it up. "He's not in my book," Esler says.

The worrying thing for modern politics is that we are so obsessed with the 'who am I' and 'who are we?' stories leaders tell to get followers, that we often don't get around to listening very closely to the 'where is my leadership going to take us' story.

The media, and their obsession with the personal, are partly to blame for that. The relationship between the media and political leaders has changed enormously over the last 30 years, Esler says: so much so that when Piers Morgan interviewed Chancellor Alastair Darling ahead of a general election as the world was plunging towards recession, the question he is most remembered for asking was 'Are you good in bed?' "Nobody would have asked that of Mrs Thatcher," Esler says.

Of current world leaders, Esler says he probably most esteems Germany's Angela Merkel – a woman known in her own country as 'mutti' or mother.

As for the member of the great and the good that he has interviewed down the years that he most admires... he comes up with an intriguing name. Dolly Parton. No, not a world leader, he admits: but a very smart and successful woman.

"I asked her 'do the dumb blonde jokes ever get you down?' And she said 'Nope. Because I'm not really dumb and I'm not really blonde.'"

Fact file

Gavin Esler's talk 'Leading From The Top' will be at the National Science Learning Centre at the University of York, at 3.30pm on Saturday June 22 as part of the York Festival of Ideas. Tickets free but booking required.

For tickets, and to find out more about the 140-plus events taking place at this year's festival, visit

Lessons From The Top by Gavin Esler is published by Profile, priced £8.99