Heroic Tales of Leadership in a Competitive World


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Weight training your eyes, wearing tight shirts and indulging in rock and roll, was amongst the leadership advice given by modern business ‘heroes’ at the Institute of Directors (IoD) convention in London. The leadership styles on show ranged from the inspiring to the dubious, but strong themes in winning, and losing business in a global economy emerged from the men and women who set the business trends – including Clive Woodward and Terry Leahy.

The 2005 IoD convention tackled the issue of ‘leadership in a competitive world’. Speakers giving their own recipes for success included:

  • Sir Clive Woodward, who took the English rugby team from 6th place in the world to number 1.
  • Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco now the third largest supermarket in the world.
  • Arun Sarin, CEO of Vodafone, the biggest company in wireless communication,
  • Simon Woodroffe, founder of the restaurant phenomenon YO! Sushi and pretender to Richard Branson’s crown of entrepreneur extraordinaire.
  • Lord Rogers of Riverside, responsible for the Centre Pompidou, Millennium Dome and European Court of Human Rights – the building not the institution.

Also making a feisty comeback and reminding us how not to do it was Gerald Ratner; returning to the scene of his ‘silver tray and glasses for £4.99’ debacle 14 years on. A remark from Terry Leahy that, customers buy on more than price and don’t leave their values at the shop doorway, must have had particular resonance for him. (See Ratner Hopes to Sparkle Again – BBC News 2002)

The advice on offer had common themes, but it was the individual quirks in leadership style that was most striking. Arun Sarin and Terry Leahy both gave copybook ‘corporate’ performances. In fact, that of Vodafone’s CEO contained the type of clichéd, jargon ridden advice to be found in many a white paper – it probably had been written by Vodafone’s PR. Given the contrast between his message and hearsay from Vodafone employees and suppliers you wondered if he really does know what is happening on the shop floor (See Winning friends and influencing people

The leaders who really touched hearts and minds, whose thoughts became ‘word of mouth’ in the corridors afterwards, were Simon and Clive. Relegating the speaker’s podium to the back of the stage, they came to the front to entertain the audience with ‘stories’ of their experiences; obviously used to rolling up their sleeves and getting down and dirty with delivery. Together with Gerald Ratner, their messages rang with sincerity, failure figuring as much as success. (See Creating sustained performance improvements – Peter Hunter)


The importance of taking risks and ‘asset stripping’ failure was a theme, in all but Vodafone’s advice. Simon Woodroffe, his accolades growing monthly, told the audience how he used to measure daily output in failure. When he hit the 6th telephone rejection he could ‘feel good’ about achieving his daily target – it kept spirits up. Gerald Ratner told of his enormous difficulty in raising capital when his brand hit negative equity. He circumvented the barriers thrown in his path by building and selling a health club to raise funds. Clive Woodward thanked defeat for leading him to the view that only innovative thinking and risk would make the sea change he wanted in English rugby – ‘don’t compromise your dreams’ he told the audience. (See If I had to live my life over – various authors)


All speakers made the point that success did not come from following ‘best practice’ but from listening to ‘stakeholders’, researching, developing and innovating. Clive Woodward put his team in tight rugby shirts for the World Cup when he noticed on video replays how even the fastest wing was brought down by pulling the traditional baggy shirts. (He first thought of tight all in one jump suits, avec hood, but that was too much for the RFU!!) His advice to businesses- throw out all notions that ‘this is how things get done’ and start again; only bring back the things you KNOW work. Terry Leahy told of the research that had led to suppliers delivering ready stocked shelves to stores, obliterating the need to unpack and shelf stack. Vodafone talked about innovation through finding the value of new technology and the use of R &D. (See Competing in World Markets – Terry Leahy and Developing Competitive Advantage Through Leadership – Arun Sarin)

Feedback and Community

Feedback, and its gown up sibling ‘community’, was another strong theme. Vodafone increasingly thinks in terms of communities of customers as well as employees – 100% of Vodafone employees are shareholders. Tesco, famous for listening to customers, has extended the idea to suppliers; conscience of the criticism that the supermarket giants live on the backs of small producers – a point to note by those still running command and control outsourcing contracts.

Clive Woodward creates community by eradicating ‘energy sappers’, people whose attitude and actions sap the energy of those around them. (Everyone knows a few who fit this profile!) Whilst, Simon Woodroffe told the story of the technology company receptionist who had asked for the title First Impression Technologist, to demonstrate the importance of her role in the ‘community’- she got it as well. Richard Rogers demonstrated how environment helped and hindered community building. Think about the infrastructure for small group formation and create a ‘spirit of place’ for staff and customers. Take a trip to the developing Thames Gateway to see thought put into action. (see 2005 - The year of the customer community

Corporate Social Responsibility

The rising undercurrent of corporate social responsibility was very evident. Senior members of the Trade Union Congress and Confederation of British Industry reached an unprecedented agreement that social responsibility and wealth creation were not necessarily diametrically opposed political views. Blending European social policies with US productivity would give a competitive edge to those who could do it. (European shenanigans were only touched on!) Profit had primacy; but through profit social wealth could, should and must be created. Profit at the expense of social assets is no longer acceptable - especially when intangibles become the way companies are value.

Down on the ground floor, Tesco talked of the way customers valued the environment and fair trade; Vodaphone of ‘enriching customer’s lives’. Spirituality was a word used much more frequently than would have been the case even 2 years ago– pink and fluffy is beginning to consort with hard and grey. (see The next hot topic in CRM


Enjoyment was the big take away from the event – a facet of corporate life that both Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Richard Branson of Virgin also wax lyrically about. Clive Woodward began his bid for success by researching what enjoyment really meant to the England squad – so skip the staff satisfaction survey this year and ask about enjoyment instead. Simon Woodroffe lived and breathed his view that bringing entertainment into the customer value proposition created positive ‘word of mouth’. He gave the example of the robotic dog in his restaurants that delivers drinks to the table, quipping to customers at odd moments as it glides across the floor – they said it wouldn’t work, he grinned.

Bottom Line

There is plenty of demand in the world – 2 billion people have never made a telephone call – but over supply is a growing factor of modern business. Fierce competition can be expected; it is those who understand and embrace it knowing what sets them apart who will win. Take risks and profit from failure. Increase spirituality and enjoyment – the old ways of business are not enough anymore. Innovation will replace best practice, community supersede command and control whilst cost reduction must be done with a view to social responsibility. We must teach our children how to win at conkers rather than ban ‘risky’ games from the playground, and make entrepreneurship the new rock and roll.

Notable Quotes

  • "We already have a very effective regulator. It's called the customers." – Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco

  • "Trust what your customers tell you, and follow them where they lead you. If you do, you will not go far wrong." – Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco

  • "Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world, it’s the only thing that ever has – Sir Winston Churchill quoted by Sir Clive Woodward

  • "Winners know about difficult times." – Claire Owen, Stopgap

  • "Leaders cannot motivate but they can demotivate." – Sir Clive Woodward

  • "2bn people have never made a telephone call." – Arun Sarin, Vodaphone

  • "If you ban children from playing conkers in the playground because it dangerous, they are going to get one hell of a shock when they meet the Chinese competition." – Sir Digby Jones, CBI

  • "Bad judgement leads to experience. And experience leads to good judgement." – Karan Bilimoria, Cobra Beer

  • "Communities build success and competitiveness." – Lord Richard Rogers, Richard Rogers Partnership

  • "Take more risks, live more dreams." – Simon Woodroffe, Yo! Sushi

  • "Business is the new rock and roll." – Simon Woodroffe, Yo! Sushi

  • Jennifer Kirkby
    Strategy & Business Analyst, CMC


    Find out more about Jennifer Kirkby

    Recommended Reading

    Ratner Hopes to Sparkle Again – BBC News 2002

    Winning friends and influencing people - Jennifer Kirkby

    Creating sustained performance improvements – Peter Hunter

    Competing in World Markets – Terry Leahy and Developing Competitive Advantage Through Leadership – Arun Sarin

    2005 - The year of the customer community - Jennifer Kirkby

    The next hot topic in CRM - Jennifer Kirkby

    As always please add your comments to this story by clicking on the 'Add your own comment' link below.

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    25th May 2005 14:06

    Having read through your synopsis of the IoD event and some of the speeches published elsewhere on the site, I can't help feeling that much of what was said has as much to do with self-aggrandisement by people who occupy the the top-spot in their respective companies, as it has to do with practical business advice.

    It is for this reason that I long ago stopped reading the awful 'My Way' books that business people have a tendency to write.

    Much of business is as 'red in tooth and claw' today, as it ever was, perhaps more so. And many of the most successful companies become so by being simply better at having the right products, at delivering to customers, at having great staff and at managing their financials - just being simply better in fact - than their competitors.

    The trouble is that being simply better is a bit of a dull message, compared to more trendy things like CSR. But it doesn't alter the fact that these things are the real foundation of business success, just as they have always been.

    Graham Hill
    Independent Management Consultant

    Thanks (0)
    18th May 2005 17:02


    Congratulations on an excellent summary. I was also at the IoD event and would add just two comments. It was 15 years ago that Gerald Ratner made that famous comment at the very same IoD event. I must admit to feeling much more empathy with him after hearing his side of the story.

    The baggy rugby shirts was Sir Clive's way of explaining non critical essentials and critical essentials. The former is all about innovation and the later what everyone has to do to just to stay in the game. You need to know which is which. A great presentation that convinced me to buy his book.

    Malcolm Wicks
    Three Step Consulting

    Thanks (0)
    31st May 2005 08:45

    Have just begun reading your papers. Breath of fresh air. Not only that but I love the tone which makes it very readable.

    Kind regards

    Paul Sweeney
    European Marketing Director
    VoiceSage Ltd

    Thanks (0)
    31st May 2005 16:51


    I am genuinely interested to know 'how' you think that CSR should be best implemented.

    If you take a middle ground position between Milton Friedmann's view that "the business of business is business" and say, Attac's view that corporate social responsibility is a moral responsibility that should be enforced by law, then the big question becomes; in what way do corporates (large like Masterfoods, medium and small) have a responsibility to society and how should that responsibility be exercised in practice.

    There is too much position taking about whether CSR is a good or not so good thing, and not nearly as much well-thought through analysis about what exactly should be done, how it should be done and how the benefits to society will come about.

    As I said at the start of this post, I am genuinely interested to know 'how' you think that CSR should be best implemented.

    Graham Hill
    Independent Management Consultant

    Thanks (0)
    By apound
    31st May 2005 08:49

    Good newsletter on leadership tips. Nice examples and a candid view of the performance of so-called corporate titans. Was also interested in the link to the piece on CSR. Agree with you that this is part of the future.

    Andrew Pound
    Head of Direct Marketing

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