Leadership Symposium

Co-op boss: ‘I don’t believe in leadership anymore’

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

The Co-op boss advised: ‘When you go into a meeting, count the number of brains, not the number of heads’
The Co-op boss advised: ‘When you go into a meeting, count the number of brains, not the number of heads’

Related tags: Board of directors, President, Chairman

The Co-operative Group chair Allan Leighton has given up on leadership because he claims it has become an over complicated solution to the challenge of influencing behaviour.

“I don’t believe in leadership anymore,”​ Leighton told the Leadership Symposium at Rothamsted Research Centre yesterday (November 28th​).

“Leadership has become too complicated – people even write books about it,”​ said the business guru, credited with turning around the ailing fortunes of retail chain Asda before its sale to US giant Walmart. “People make it so complicated, but there is a very simple way.”

In place of leadership, Leighton prefers the term followership because it best signifies a group of people motivated to deliver business and other objectives.

“I believe in followership because if you win hearts and minds you create a followership.” ​It was  followership that allowed leaders to influence behaviour and performance in the workplace.

‘I believe in followership’

Delivering the keynote address, Leighton advised his audience – many of whom were students considering a food industry career – of the importance of listening, particularly to operational colleagues.

“If you take anything away from this presentation, it should be use your ears​ [to listen, rather than simply respond]. Listen to the operators who do the work every day,” ​he said.

“You don’t win hearts and minds by delivering grand, sweeping visions. It is simple, basic things: day in, day out, that enable them​ [staff] to do a better job.”

Leighton credited the Mars brothers, during his time working for their company, for helping him focus on what is truly important in selecting staff.

“The Mars brothers told me: ‘50% of the brains in the world are female and brains have no colour. Your job is to get the best brains because that will deliver a business advantage to us.”

‘50% of the brains in the world are female’

Introducing the afternoon session Sky News presenter Anna Botting warned that some women’s lack of confidence was proving an impediment to them developing leadership skills.

Asked by the host of the morning session, former Sky News presenter Jeremy Thompson whether Botting regarded herself as a role model for women, the newscaster replied: “I don’t see myself as a role model for women because of the gender confidence gap.

“We hear about gender pay gaps and ethnic pay gaps but not about the gender confidence gap.”

Last month Weetabix Food Company UK & Ireland pledged to close its gender pay gap​, which it claimed was already lower than the UK company average.

Meanwhile, all proceeds from the conference – held at Rothamsted Research Centre in Hertfordshie – will go towards the charities GroceryAid​ and Working Options in Education​.

Allan Leighton: a life in business

  • Born April 12 1953, the son of a Co-op shop manager
  • February 2015: appointed independent, non executive chairman of The Co-operative Group
  • Chairman  of Business in the Community
  • Appointed non executive chairman of the Royal Mail in April 2001
  • Appointed non executive chairman of Lastminute.com in October 2000
  • Appointed Asda marketing director in 1992 before his appointment as chairman
  • Pedigree Petfoods, marketing and sales director
  • Mars UK, general sales manager for the UK grocery division in 1987
  • MD Mars in Ireland and Portugal 

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