Moving from one leader to an employee owned structure has involved a cultural transition at Riverford.

Leaders and their demons

Since we became employee owned, I have come to appreciate that dispersed power and consultation lead to better, safer, less impulsive decisions

I finally reached the soul-sapping conclusion of the HBO series Succession, loosely based on Rupert Murdoch, a few months behind everyone else. Gripped and repelled in equal measure, I kept asking: why subject yourself to hours of such universally loathsome characters, lacking any trace of empathy, wallowing in their ugly, mindless, planet-destroying opulence? But my greatest frustration was the implausibility of a business surviving such dysfunctional, incompetent leadership. 

The portrayal of business as a series of Machiavellian deals made by despotic leaders, whether on The Apprentice or Succession, has always infuriated me. The reality (at least for businesses that do, or make, anything of lasting value over a long period, as opposed to mere traders) is that competitiveness and success are normally dependent on the ability to build and maintain strong relationships with staff, suppliers and customers. That requires empathy, communication skills, relentless dedication to technical competence, and attention to detail; all qualities notably lacking in these shows. But perhaps I’m taking things too seriously; I’m not sure how plausible Macbeth is as a king, but it’s still a great play.

Yet there is a shred of truth in these depictions. My own (mercifully declining) drive to reach the top, and that of many leaders and entrepreneurs I have met, too often stems from a dominating need for approval, derived from long-buried feelings of deep inadequacy. Those who seek (and need) power often lack the self-knowledge and emotional intelligence to temper their zealous energy; they can bring invigorating, even inspiring, determination – but without training or restraining governance, they are the least safe and suitable to hold power.

My demonic drive to overcome or destroy any barrier certainly helped Riverford up to a point. But since we became employee owned, I have come to appreciate that dispersed power and consultation lead to better, safer, less impulsive decisions, and they don’t have to come at the price of bravery and responsiveness. Watching governance develop at Riverford makes me realise that we need to give those with emotional balance, who shout less and don’t need power to bolster their fragile egos, a route to leadership and influence. Let’s stop idolising, promoting, and voting for these society-destroying maniacs; they need compassion and therapy, not power.


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