Books: Fly high but stay grounded

Leighton's lessons from a portfolio career spanning Mars, Asda, Royal Mail and many other firms are a great resource for leaders in the making, says Paul Walsh.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Allan Leighton is one of the most innovative and successful business leaders of the current generation. His career has had three distinctive phases. First, he rose from management trainee to become group marketing director of Mars. Then he spent nearly a decade working with Sir Archie Norman, leading the transformation of Asda from 'a basket case' (his words), into a business that became a by-word for turnaround, and a must-have acquisition for Wal-Mart. In recent years, he has established the concept of 'going plural', working with lastminute.com, BSkyB and Royal Mail.

This is rich experience and it shapes his thinking to form the bedrock of his book On Leadership. This is a series of highly personal reflections on what it is to be a leader in today's business world. Interwoven are the thoughts of many of today's other business leaders. These include former Asda colleagues - such as Richard Baker, Andy Hornby and Justin King - who have gone on to lead other major retail organisations, and others like Sir Philip Green, Rupert Murdoch and Adam Crozier, with whom Leighton has worked in his more recent varied career.

Not surprisingly, the book majors on the aspects of leadership that most informed the challenges its author has faced. So, from Asda and Royal Mail, there is much on business turnaround. From lastminute.com and Dyson there is a masterclass on being a successful entrepreneur. And, from a variety of sources, there's sound advice on topics as varied as 'Talking to the Media', 'Talking to the Moneymen' and 'Business vs Politics'.

There are some outstandingly good stories. Some are funny, some piquant and almost all very pungently illustrate the points Leighton is seeking to make. One of the best comes early on.

The young Leighton is in his first assignment on the Mars graduate programme. He is sent as production manager on the Maltesers line with the single piece of advice to 'listen to what the chargehand tells you'. The first job is to sweep up the Maltesers that have fallen from the line. After three hours sweeping up the little chocolate balls as they roll around the floor, Leighton is dispirited and his watching colleagues bemused. Eventually the chargehand puts him out of his misery. He tells him he must tread on the Maltesers before he tries to sweep them up.

It is an object lesson in understanding that those closest to the work usually know the best way to undertake it, a theme to which the book returns again and again. Leadership is based on getting as close as possible to those doing the work. It's vital to 'stay grounded', to discover what's going on before moving decisively to action. As Leighton reminds us, 'the weakness of some leaders is that they are more advocates than enquirers'.

Yet he also makes clear that it is absolutely vital to create excellent two-way communication. It's crucial to talk with your colleagues rather than present to them, as demonstrated by a chilling account of his first presentation to the Mars brothers. Above all, Leighton seeks to demystify the leadership process, but also to underline that it requires 24x7 attention to detail.

The book will be of most immediate use to those seeking to lead for the first time or starting a business from scratch. It is powerful on the character of successful enterprises, and it is very clear that Leighton regards entrepreneurs such as Clive Jacobs, Martha Lane-Fox and Sir James Dyson as the real heroes of today's business world.

If it has a weakness, it is that On Leadership addresses the concerns of those seeking to lead in large organisations mostly from the perspective of the people at the top and then, predominantly, from the retail sector. The voices of those who offer great leadership across different levels in big businesses are heard only at second hand. I'm sure Leighton wouldn't argue that these unsung champions are any less important than more famous senior colleagues, but the book's form tends to elevate the insights of more celebrated contributors.

But this is a minor gripe. On Leadership is immensely readable. It will provide a welcome resource for those wanting to tell others stories about leadership and for those who want to relate their own experience to the collected wisdom of many of today's brightest business leaders. They will find much about which to be optimistic, and a lot of realism.

They might also want to reflect on the words of Tesco's Sir Terry Leahy, arguably an even more successful retailer than Leighton himself: 'Most businesses rise and all businesses fall. As long as you are aware of that, you can concentrate on making the gap between the rise and the fall as long as possible.'

Paul Walsh is chief executive of Diageo.

On Leadership: Practical wisdom from the people who know; Allan Leighton; Random House Books; £20.00.

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