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Three lessons for leadership from the Brexit mess

An article co-authored by Dr Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School discusses what leadership lessons every one of us could learn from Brexit negotiations.

Two pawns with UK and European flags on a chess board

Remember David Cameron? He’s the prime minister who gambled his career – and the stability of his country – on the UK’s Brexit referendum. He unsuccessfully bet his job that he could persuade the UK to remain in the EU. Cameron has surely reflected long and hard on his role in the wave of uncertainty that has since engulfed the UK. His successor, Theresa May, is now struggling to lead the country through the Brexit process.

Thomas Roulet
Dr Thomas Roulet

Their mistakes offer a number of lessons for would-be leaders. Not just political ones, but business leaders too. They can be summed up, thus: ignore your people at your peril. Consumed with hubris, Cameron assumed that the British electorate would vote in favour of remaining. He downplayed the role of emotions in a crucial vote and he took one chance after another while in power. May’s handling of Brexit has also been riddled with miscalculation.

In May 2016, we started providing advice to businesses on Brexit, and worked closely with more than 150 executives. Among them, some have thrived since the fateful 23 June vote. Despite the turmoil and the struggles of the political elites, we found that economic decision makers now realise three powerful and poignant lessons of Brexit leadership.

1. Spend more time with customers

London’s political elite invested in multiple pollsters, experts and statisticians to predict the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The day before Brits took to the ballot box, many polls prophesied a 10-point victory for the Remain campaign. Mastermind of the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, on the other hand, simply went to the pub and spoke to everyday voters. Dozens of conversations later, he had the understanding and messaging that would see Vote Leave triumphant.

Majorities can be silent and invisible – Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016 was also unexpected by many polls. Voter preferences, like customer preferences, are often difficult to define. They struggle to articulate their real interests and, without clear information, emotional responses prevail.

Two separate studies of 1,000 retail, tech, financial services and healthcare leaders around the globe confirm the value of customer research in understanding the business. This means that after absorbing the analytics, leaders still have to make the key judgement calls and not take the numbers completely at face value. They need to leave the office and gather the real, on-the-ground customer research to get a finer grained understanding of things.

2. End complacency before it kills you

David Cameron’s decision to call the Brexit referendum seemed more like an embarrassed answer to a child’s dare than a planned, strategic, historical step forward. The British government was arrogant and complacent, and as one consultant for the government put it to us: “Ministers really believed people would do everything their prime minister told them to.” From a mix of hubris and naivety, Cameron made strong assumptions about his people.

Instead, Brexiters used the referendum as a chance to “take control”. This was their campaign slogan and the referendum gave them space and an audience to express a voice of divergence.

Today, the best leaders are those that keep a finger on the pulse of the workforce. Cameron should have predicted that the consequence of giving the Brexiters legitimacy would be that he could lose control of his party. This would have ultimately helped him plan accordingly.

3. Promote transparency

Britain is in complete disarray over the course of Brexit. The country’s leaders seem to be grabbing for words and ideas ad hoc, with no concrete plan in place, and the original deadline for departing the EU has long gone. “It’s fair to say that Brexit has been characterised by panic,” business journalist and neuroscientist, Kirsten Levermore told us.

Without question, negotiating the Brexit deal is one of the greatest challenges a leader could imagine. Differences of opinion run deep and the political balance can shift at any moment, jeopardising months of effort. But, like all boards and business leaders facing great change, politicians must contain the panic of their peers and people, or risk figurative – or even literal – riots on the streets.

But Levermore added: “Silence is deafening – it is saying that leaders don’t know what is going on, or what they are going to do about it. It can be difficult for leaders to know what and how much to share in times of crisis … but the really important thing is that they say something to fill the void.”

In the context of Brexit, the public on both sides of the debate has been looking at their leaders with increasing defiance – while the government seems to lack a clear direction, and keeps its cards close to its chest, better communication on the path forward would help unite opinion around a common solution rather than division.

A long road ahead

The UK government still seems a long way away from a clear solution to Brexit. But there is much to learn from the current struggles, from the fundamental mistake of David Cameron to assume he would win the referendum and hold one without a proper plan in place, to the struggles of his successor Theresa May when it comes to finding a platform of agreement with her own members of parliament.

The Brexit negotiations have become a political game rather than an exercise of democracy. Business leaders, like political ones, when facing such a divisive situation, should consider going back to the drawing board – listening, taking stock and feeding back to their followers to keep them on board.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.