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A masterclass in modern leadership - and how the government cost the BBC its best Director-General of modern times
on 6 June 2010
When Greg Dyke took over from John Birt as Director-General (DG) of the BBC in 2000, I was working for BBC Magazines in`BBC Worldwide Ltd', the commercial arm of the BBC. We were at arm's length from the BBC itself, and tiny in comparison to the organisation as a whole, but we were part of the same family. We could sense the excitement of producers and programme makers, of broadcasters and administrators caused by Dyke's arrival We got the same `all desks' emails from Dyke himself: direct, sensible, motivational. We saw the same internal brodcasts of interviews and events. Dyke was impressive and inspirational.
Dyke's predecessor, John Birt, had, rightly or wrongly, not been widely liked at the BBC (to put it mildly). He wanted a successor from within the BBC who understood his thinking and would carry on his good work. He had written a twenty-year plan for the BBC and insisted on a ludicrously long five-month handover for the new DG. He was not happy when Dyke, the outsider from commercial television, got the job. Dyke wasn't very interested in Birt's 20-year plan: "In my experience, the only thing you can be certain about when dealing with long-term plans is that they will turn out to be wrong: there are too many variables for them ever to be right." This common-sense approach is very Dyke. Dyke is also right that the last thing that an organisation needs is another leader just like the old one: change in leadership style is essential, and healthy.
If Birt's vision was to create 'the best managed public sector organisation in the world', Dyke's vision was to build 'The most creative organisation in the world.' Dyke reduced administration costs across the BBC and channelled these savings into programme-making. His most significant initiative was probably `Making it Happen': an inspirational programme that highlighted the contributions to the creation of excellent programming made behind the scenes by people at every level of the organisation. BBC personnel were energised and inspired. The mood changed.
Dyke's career as DG came to an abrupt and premature end when his resignation was accepted by the BBC's Board of Governors after New Labour's vicious attack on the BBC, led by Tony Blair's Director of Communications and Strategy, Alastair Campbell, for having allowed one its journalists, in the build-up to the war with Iraq, to suggest that the dossier claiming that Iraq was capable of launching weapons of mass destruction within forty-five minutes had been `sexed up'. The row stirred up by the government over this issue led to the suicide of UN weapons inspector David Kelly, one of the BBC's sources.
Dyke is conscientious and even-handed in his reporting of the events surrounding this national crisis. When he left, staff demonstrated in the street. Some cried. As Herb Schlosser, ex-president and CEO of NBC wrote to Dyke: "I saw on the internet BBC employees marching in support of a CEO. This is a first in the history of the Western World."
The only fault in this intriguing account of Dyke's career in broadcasting, before and after the BBC, is the amount of time that he devotes diligently to recording the precise events that were investigated by the Hutton enquiry. He could have saved his pains: we would all be happy, now, with a much shorter version that simply records that the BBC fulfilled its journalistic duties honestly and faithfully, and that the government brought unreasonable pressure to bear on the national broadcaster in an attempt to deflect criticism of its actions.
Inside Story is an excellent record of a remarkable period in British broadcasting history and a valuable document for those studying the issues surrounding the Iraq War. But it is also, and above all, a masterclass in modern management and leadership. It comes as no surprise to read that Dyke's mentor at Harvard Business School was the great management and leadership thinker, John P. Kotter. Kotter must be proud of his student.