Co-op chair Allan Leighton: 'Followship' is just as important as leadership

The retail veteran says Brexit shows leaders need more empathy.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 08 Nov 2016

Having previously helped turn around Asda and chaired the board of several large international companies (including Matalan, Entertainment One and the Co-operative Group), Allan Leighton knows a thing or two about leadership. But it’s ‘followship’ that Leighton thinks many bosses need to show a little more of.

Speaking at the Telegraph’s Festival of Business this morning the veteran retailer didn’t give a concrete definition of the concept, which MT imagines could easily become a popular buzzword along the lines of ‘agility’, ‘disruption’ and ‘synergy’. But the idea in a nutshell seems to be that leaders need to spend less time telling people what to do and more time genuinely empathising with them. ‘Don’t be the type of leader that you want to be, be the type of leader that other people need,’ he said.

‘There are two types of listening,’ Leighton added. Most of us spend the time we are ‘listening’ coming up with a response. But ‘that’s not listening. The real type of listening is listening to hear. That’s very different because you’re sucking in the information and what people are trying to say. When you listen to hear somebody they feel much better and more importantly you get more from that. The other thing is how you talk. Most of us talk at people. People don’t want to be talked at, they want to be talked with.’


Read more: 6 communication lessons from Brexit


Leighton said the need for this change in attitude towards leadership was demonstrated by the outcome of the Brexit referendum, in which a majority of voters rejected the government’s and many experts’ warnings that leaving the EU was a very bad idea.

‘Brexit was a democratic revolution,’ he said. ‘It was people saying I’ve got my own thoughts, I’m not going to be talked at, I want to be listened to, I want to be treated with respect and don’t want things stuffed down my throat. And that’s the world we’re now in. And that’s why followship has all those things in it. You create that followship and that’s what makes you a good leader. Telling people what to do, that’s not [being a good leader] anymore.’

Leighton also said leaders need to be more relaxed and honest about failure. ‘If you’re good, you’re right 70% of the time - which means you’re wrong 30% of the time. When I was younger I used to dig in, even when I knew I was wrong, because I thought it was a sign of weakness to show you’re wrong. Actually in today’s world, showing you’re wrong is a strength. People will give you credibility for saying, you know, I got that wrong.’

It might all seem a bit motherhood and apple pie – few would seriously argue nowadays that a good leader doesn’t need to listen to the concerns of their team and engage them in genuine discussion. But most of us have met people or worked for companies that are more preoccupied with broadcasting their viewpoint that understanding yours, so clearly not everybody has got the message just yet. Time to add a new word to your management lexicon.

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