Bookshelf: Practical wisdom

The saviour of Royal Mail says it is what you learn after you know everything that counts.

by Kevin Kelly, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

There comes a time in any long and illustrious business career when a leader strikes on the notion of enshrining their lessons of leadership in print; what is so compelling about Allan Leighton's book On Leadership is that you believe he might actually have something to teach. History would certainly seem to support this view - Leighton was appointed by Tony Blair back in 2002 to turn around the Royal Mail, which was haemorrhaging money and reputation on the back of staff discontent and poor management. Today, Royal Mail is enjoying a renaissance that few believed possible.

Leighton is on the board of a number of companies and is respected for his forthright, no-nonsense approach: here we meet the author in all his glory - the maverick with a conscience. He takes us on a breakneck tour of the hot topics of business in 2007 - communication, how to be entrepreneurial, the brand, day-to-day fire-fighting, plus the relationship of leaders with the media, with politicians and with private equity. To llustrate these topics, each chapter is shot through with interviews and soundbites from the 60 leaders Leighton has interviewed. There are top journalists and financiers, and a roll-call of well-known names from Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation to Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse; from Gulam Noon at Noon Foods to Martin Sorrell of WPP. Henry Kravis of KKR tells us: "Leading by fear is a disaster", while Sir Philip Green's leadership lessons include: "absolute focus" and "don't complicate things".

These are not searching interviews - Leighton believes the first 20 minutes of any meeting are the most fruitful, so he has talked to each leader for just 20 minutes on what it takes to be a great business leader. This works because the contributors of the book are, by and large, impressive and interesting, and the book barrels along at such a pace, with such enthusiasm, that we are breathlessly carried along.

It also works because the various talking heads are extremely frank with Leighton, which can make for some uncomfortable reading. The experience of Clive Jacobs of Holiday Autos, who appeared in a fly-on-the-wall documentary and came to be known as "the most loathsome man on television", is a salutary reminder of the care needed when dealing with the media. "I was poisoned by it," says Jacobs, "and my people were upset because they were very proud of the place where they worked. Given my time again, I would never agree to it."

When the comments deviate from personal anecdotes and examples to general leadership speak, it feels a bit incidental and is quickly forgotten. The book soars when the big leadership lessons are matched by the colour of the anecdotes, and invariably happens when Leighton is telling us his own stories - he isn't afraid to highlight his own mistakes and then draw the lesson from them, which makes him enormously likeable.

There is a story about his early days at Mars, spent on the Maltesers production line in Slough. His job is to sweep up the stray Maltesers that fall off the conveyer belt. He spends three hours chasing the little balls of chocolate around the floor with his broom (watched by his curious co-workers) until finally the foreman intervenes - step on the Maltesers before sweeping them up. I thought this story summed up beautifully the importance of communication.

On Leadership is a profoundly hopeful read - informed by the almost palpable joy Leighton feels in inspiring and leading others. He admits that a "recurrent if not obesseive theme" throughout the book is the building of relationships. Each leader emphasises the need to listen and learn from those around you at every step of your career. As we say in my business, follow your biological set-up: two ears and one mouth means listen twice as much as you talk.

This is not the book for the young executive who wants a paint-by-numbers guide to becoming Allan Leighton, but it brings home the power of instinct and guts - a valuable reminder in today's increasingly regulated world. Leighton writes that "customer service comes from the heart, not from a text book". I think this book tells us that leadership is the same - it is what you learn after you know everything that counts.

On Leadership: practical wisdom from those who know, Allan Leighton, Random House Business Books, £20, ISBN: 1-90521-126-0.

Readers can buy this book (RRP £20) for the special price of £17.50, including p&p in the UK. To order, call 01206 255 800.

Kevin Kelly is chief executive of executive search firm Heidrick &

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