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Brexit and the oxymoron of Political leadership: why should anyone be led by you?

July 11, 2016

On a recent Friday morning, I awoke shocked like many to find that UK electorate had chosen to exit the EU. As an advocate of Remain, I am still struggling to come to terms with the idea of a ‘divorce’ from what I regard to be a positive relationship with our fellow Europeans on social and economic issues. On the surface, Brexit has all the flavours ranging from nostalgia of self-rule to xenophobia.

Some have attributed Brexit to a political error by Cameron in holding a referendum, poor management of migration policy by the EU and downright misjudgement on how inflammable the issue of migration into the UK has become, such that it became the single-decision issue for most Leave voters.

It is worth reflecting on what caused this surprise result and what we can learn from it from a leadership perspective, as for me, the leadership vacuum on both sides of the debate is my overriding takeaway. As a consequence, the subsequent fall-out from the leading voices in both the Remain and Leave campaigns has left us with some dramatic short-term adverse and unexpected challenges.

The fallout is huge. The Prime Minister resigned with haste and no obvious successor, and the Leave campaign leadership exited themselves with equal undue haste, opting to save their own skins. Multiple Tories crept out of the woodwork murmuring their leadership credentials, whilst the Shadow Cabinet is in open revolt in an effort to oust Corbyn, struggling to survive a coup yet stating he’s under no pressure.

Meanwhile, the ‘rerun the referendum petition’ reached over four million signatures seemingly overnight, and the pound hit a 31-year low against the dollar. And there is talk in Scotland and Wales of total secession. It has been a painful experience to watch events unfurl on such a seismic scale, the like of which we have never seen before.

In business, when something happens of such significance – loss of a major customer or project, a strategic shift in the market, or a factory closure and a round of redundancies, we expect a clear sense of authority and direction to be communicated by the leadership. Someone steps up and reassures us that all will be well, and that this moment, like others before it, will pass. Heads come up, we face the challenge, we adapt, shrug our shoulders and move on.

In the case of Brexit, weeks after a vote demanding a significant change of direction, there remains a total leadership void. Precisely no one has stepped up. Neither side advocating their point of view had a clear game plan in the event of victory or defeat.

If you take one constructive lesson from Brexit, it is a stark reminder of the absolute imperative of genuine leadership. The political turmoil of the last few weeks offers many lessons about how to fail and succeed as a leader. Here are my thoughts on the leadership takeaways from the referendum.

Focus on your people first and second It is clear the Remain leaders failed to create engagement, and build trust. Employee engagement is one of the defining issues in current management debate. With the impact of the millennial generation joining the workforce, more people are simply showing up to pick up a paycheck, while their passion for the business and commitment has waned. They are cynical about business and are more focused on ‘what’s in it for me?’

To turn around these attitudes, business leaders need to stop trying to please their investors, who will never be satisfied, no matter how strong the results, and engage and inspire their people. They should invest in them through training, creative and flexible benefits packages, and create an empowering culture.

Business leaders who ignore their co-workers’ emotions and sentiment do so at their peril. Discontented employees lead to disengaged, fractured workplaces, poor customer experience and consequently mediocre results. The lack of engagement delivered by the Remain campaign showed in the results.

Spend face-to-face time with customers There is no greater place for learning what is going on in your business than being in the marketplace with customers. Leaders who apply all five senses to customer interactions learn more first-hand than they do from reading reports or looking at PowerPoint presentations.

When he became CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman asked his leaders ten questions to see how much time they were spending with customers. Their responses were so embarrassing that Polman challenged them to refocus their entire strategies on customers. This type of customer engagement signals to the entire organisation that the company puts customers first.

Remain discounted the apathy of the millennial generation, which favoured Remain, but only 36% voted. The lack of direct contact, creating real opportunities for listening and sharing concerns, was a weakness.

Think, act and behave with transparency In today’s digitally connected world, anything less than complete transparency creates a lack of trust. Employees expect their leaders to keep them informed about what is going on, no matter how negative the news. When they are not treated with this respect, they turn to external sources and internal rumours for information, which undermines leaders even more.

For example, following staff layoffs, Zappos founder Tony Hsieh wrote to employees: ‘Remember this is not my company, and this is not our investors’ company. This company is all of ours, and it’s up to all of us where we go from here.’ Hsieh’s communications are authentic, transparent, and informal. Honest conversations helped to heal issues. Rather than frowning on problems, Hsieh used them to come up with solutions.

Emotion beats logic, and hope beats fear This is a headline I saw in response to the way in which comments from Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, were dismissed. Carney, like those of us with a technical background, default to logical argument an analysis of the risks that might be faced. However, the Brexit campaign showed how little influence this approach carries with many people.

Since Aristotle’s time, effective leaders have recognised the power of emotional appeal (pathos) as a complement to rational argument (logos). The Leave campaigners focused their message at voter’s hearts not their heads, on patriotism, freedom and fear. The Remain campaigners peddled Aristotle’s third way (ethos) to win an argument, citing the expertise and credentials of their advocates.

However, voters ignored the experts. The underlying point here is that whilst we need to rely on the knowledge of others, in instances like Brexit where the arguments are complex and it becomes unfathomable to determine true ‘facts’, people give up trying to get to the truth, and fall back on gut feel and beliefs overcome conflicting evidence.

Indeed, both sides of the debate offered various ‘facts’ to support their arguments. The pile-up of competing promises and predictions left the public confused at best, cynical at worst. The Leave campaign won over by speaking to the anxiety and pain of people who felt ignored. In the end, it didn’t matter to working class voters that Johnson attended an elite Eton School, what counted was that Johnson’s statements resonated with their own grievances and anti-establishment sentiments

The implications for business leaders is that developed expertise and analysis only gets you so far, if you want to bring people with you, you also need emotional conviction and harness intuition effectively. People care less about facts per se than the implications of these facts to their well-being.

It does no good to deny that humans are emotional as well as rational. A campaign that elicits both emotional engagement and intellectual understanding has a huge advantage over one that appeals mainly to rationality.

A leader is a dealer in hope The importance of being an authentic leader – with alignment of thoughts, actions and feelings as enabling trust to inspire collective action – was clearly shown. Leaders advocating change must speak with sincere heartfelt conviction rather than using rhetoric to demand an obligation.

For me, the leading personalities on both sides were frequently manifested as double-dealing hypocrites, masking their ambivalence about the EU for their own self-promotion and careerist convenience. Credibility and authenticity are closely linked, and people are aware and sensitive to the slightest suggestion of hypocrisy.

Both sides of the debate engaged almost solely in fear-based leadership and scaremongering, reminding us constantly of all the short-term problems and issues associated with the opposing campaign. The Leavers focused on problems and issues with immigration and bureaucracy while the Remainers focused almost exclusively on speculating about the economic fallout from Brexit.

Be a positive, visionary leadership Leadership on both sides failed to provide any positive, coherent vision for the near or long term future of staying or exiting the EU. Their performance lacked vision, cohesion, passion and confidence.

To fully appreciate the power of a unifying vision, recall the powerful example provided by the late South African president, Nelson Mandela, who unified the country with his vision of a ‘rainbow nation’ for post-apartheid South Africa. He never resorted to the tactics of scaremongering and fear of change, rather retained an optimistic and positive vision of a future for all, replacing the dogmas of the past.

To deliver change, leaders need to create trust by addressing the real challenges and dilemmas in a positive, transparent and solutions-focused manner. Leaders should deliberately adopt a more intentional approach about their words and actions and how these impact their business.

Why should anyone be led by you? Formal authority counts for almost nothing in those moments of truth. Leadership is a function of what you say and do that attracts others to follow you. Farage had influence but no authority, following Brexit Corbyn has a formal mandate but no influence within the parliamentary Labour party.

The lesson for business leaders is clear, as recounted in Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones book Why Should Anyone be Led by You? It is a question all leaders should all ask themselves – do people have any reason to follow you, above and beyond what their reporting line tells them to do?

Watching Boris Johnson deliver his speech on the Friday morning exiting his challenge for Prime Minister, you could see from his body language that he was starting to wonder what on earth he had done. He had treated the campaign like an Oxford University debate – clever arguments and put downs, with no cares for the consequences – and now he reaped the rewards.

He once famously said he was in favour of having cake and eating cake as well, but despite being an attractive leader to some, eventually people saw through his ‘style over substance’ approach, at which point, a large chunk of his support dissolved away. He simply lacked credibility as a leader.

The leadership lesson here is stay true to yourself and stay on good terms with those around you. If you become too opportunistic, or if you start making empty promises, you will pay for it later. You aren’t a leader is you don’t have any followers.

‘Political leadership’ is an oxymoron by any measure – enduring and woeful unethical individual behaviours driven by self-interest, the absence of a credible ideology and rhetoric underpinned by convenient metrics just to name a few issues where there is no long-term vision that I’ve seen.

Leadership success always starts with vision. John Kennedy famously dreamed of putting a man on the moon. Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned a world of equal opportunity for women and minorities. Compelling visions can truly inspire people. But there is actually nothing mystical about vision, simply, a vision is a picture of what an organisation could and should be.

A hallmark of great leaders is that their vision includes big ideas. Big ideas get people excited. Nobody wants to do something small. Leaders want to feel that what they do matters – Kennedy’s vision for the space programme was ‘We choose to go to the moon . . . not because it is easy, but because it is hard’.

Great business leaders also know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. They make it look easy. However, most of them have worked hard to develop and articulate their thoughts. A powerful vision, well-articulated, attracts people, motivates them to take action toward progress, unites them to a common purpose and drives breakthrough business results.

A leader’s core vision provides the glue that holds an organisation together through time, consisting of core values and core purpose, ideology shaping the vision, the raison d’être. You discover core ideology by looking inside, and connecting with sincerity, humility and authenticity. You can’t fake it.

What Brexit showed what is needed in our political leaders is this big commitment to emotional and intellectual transparency, and robust validation, such that when people see what their vision is, there is almost an audible gasp, creating an emotional connection to sharing the vision.

Brexit should be a wakeup call for all business leaders. The result and feedback showed Britain’s leaders were out of sync with its voters. Could the same thing be happening with your workers in your business? Are you connected and in touch, creating engagement, creating and sharing a vision? Or are you too intent on achieving your own personal agenda and progress? Ask yourself, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’

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