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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.