Book review: Tough Calls, by Allan Leighton

Swashbuckling stints at the top of Asda and the Royal Mail proved the worth of Allan Leighton's down-to-earth gifts. We need more like him, says Tim Waterstone.

by Tim Waterstone
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2011

The peak of Allan Leighton's career was for many of us the astonishing turnaround he and his colleagues achieved at Asda in the 1990s. Archie Norman was the true leader of the executive gang, intellectually above all, until he became chairman in 1996. But Leighton absolutely held his place beside him, as a visionary. And a motivator, too.

Much of his triumphant Asda period stemmed from what he learnt from the extraordinary Mars brothers in his early career - 'flying economy, hiring a car, and inspecting a factory without warning before management arrived, talking to workers to get a sense of what was going on'. This became the essence of Leighton's style - in the good sense that he maintained a strong rapport with workers, and in the bad sense perhaps that he became a great one for busting in ahead of his executive subordinates.

We read that the greatest influence on Leighton's career was the Walmart story. For years he studied Walmart's culture, obsessively so. 'If you love your work,' said Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, 'you will be out there every day trying to do it the best way you possibly can, and pretty soon everybody around you will catch the passion from you - like a fever.' That could be Leighton himself. He he was out there every day, biffing away with the store staff and - yes - pretty soon everybody around him caught the passion from him.

So it was hardly a great surprise that Leighton sold Asda to Walmart in 1999. He abandoned a furious Geoffrey Mulcahy at Kingfisher. He was right to do so, for Kingfisher was no true fit with Asda, and Walmart was.

And then, to everyone's surprise, Leighton resigned from Walmart and, in his famous description, went 'plural'. He has taken, in subsequent years, a range of non-executive appointments, most famously as non-executive chairman of the Royal Mail. Tough Calls sets out to explore much of what he has learned from this wealth of experience and contact, focusing not only on his own analysis and reaction to individually complex and difficult situations but those of many of his peers: Sir Terry Leahy, Mark Thompson, Sir James Dyson et al, and - perhaps most interestingly - two military men, General Sir Mike Jackson and General Lord Dannatt.

Tough Calls is particularly good at analysing how these leaders have succeeded in breaking out a single, simple, achievable strategic line in their route to restoration, often from the complex mess left behind by their predecessors. Admirable stuff. It's all about clarity and simplicity of analysis, then clarity and simplicity of vision, a grasp of the true character of your brand - its USP, in ancient business school-speak - then keeping it simple; focusing on execution; listening to your operators; and thinking small, for small is big. And, in the focus on the newly imposed clear strategic line, the banning of all alternative management initiatives, which succeed only in muddling life, making a noise and getting in the way.

Tough Calls pulls it all off very well. Leighton is a man of considerable direct and instinctive insight. But if I have a problem with the book it's that Leighton didn't write it himself. He took the risk of passing it to the ghostwriter Teena Lyons. Nothing wrong with Lyons, a responsible and experienced journalist. But there are two concerns here. First, Lyons, strives a little too hard to capture her principal's voice - always the risk in ghostwriting - and Leighton, who presents himself as an agreeably blokeish, unpretentious man, comes across sometimes rather too much in caricature. Second, one is never wholly comfortable that the research behind the book is Leighton's rather than Lyons'.

It's a shame he doesn't write his own books. He is miles too good not to. Above all, it would be him straight to us, rather than him filtered through another writer to whom Leighton has 'sold' the goods, which she then sells on to us.

But we have what we have, and I have no doubt Tough Calls will follow Leighton's On Leadership onto the bestseller charts. It deserves to.

These are terrifying times. Like many, I think what we have now - given the weight of sovereign, corporate and consumer debt in most western economies - is not so much the risk of a double-dip recession as the certainty of a correction. Corrections just happen. Nothing can stop them. They are beyond the reach of politics and politicians. We need leaders of Leighton's simple, direct, analytical and visionary stamp to see our great corporations through. Tough Calls is a topical read indeed.

Tough Calls: Making the right decisions in challenging times
Allan Leighton
Random House

- Tim Waterstone is the founder of Waterstone's. Proceeds from the sale of Tough Calls will be donated to the Breast Cancer Care charity

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