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Leadership Lessons from #Brexit

By Verity Creedy

Verity Bissett-PowellUnlike many people in Europe, I was not glued to my TV screen on Thursday night. To be honest, it did not seriously enter my consciousness that Britain would actually leave the European Union. I am currently on a DDI secondment to our Germany office, so I first heard the decision when colleagues asked me how I felt. My first response, after pure shock, was to say “I am so sorry; I thought we would help Europe, not abandon you.” There followed several stories from different people, all ending in the uncertainty, fear, and confusion that the result has ensued.

BrexitI started to wonder, how had this happened? How had the vote to Leave, which seemed almost ludicrous initially, become our destiny? Every corner I turned, I saw the disappointment in leaders and the failings of leadership. So, in an attempt to feel like we can learn and grow from the situation, here are my musings on three lessons all leaders should learn from #Brexit:

1. Once faith in senior leaders is gone, it’s tough to redeem

David Cameron, the British Prime Minster, asserted his face as the brand for the Remain campaign which was a significant risk for his broader political career, and has now concluded with his 3-month resignation. As you look back over where Remain went wrong, part of the issue was the clear loss of faith in David Cameron who not only struggled to engage Labour supporters but also began losing the faith of his Conservative bench. Cameron for many years had been trying to negotiate with the EU regarding UK concessions, and his reputation damage was so entrenched that no passionate pleas would save him—the faith in Cameron was gone, and with him as the face of Remain, they were going to struggle to unify the UK.

This shows that your leadership legacy is a precious thing and consistency of good leadership behaviours is essential to secure the loyalty of those around you. Once the faith in your executive leaders is gone, or hypocrisy of behaviours emerges, consider it "game over."

2. Don’t forget the next generation

When you look at the demographics of the voters, what you can see is that those aged 45-upwards significantly swayed the vote for Leave. In fact, 73 percent of the 18-24 year olds voted firmly for Remain. It was clear; the next generation of the UK wanted a world in which we were aligned to the European Union. But the older generations who had a legacy of independence looked back to the past for inspiration for the future. This is a common trait that we see from millennials in the corporate world—collaboration, global networking, working across matrices—all behaviours that motivate them not only in working but also personally. Similarly, millennials are showing more of an interest in working for companies that they feel emotionally connected to, with a greater interest in corporate and social responsibility than previously experienced. Those in their teens, 20s, and 30s seemed to express a desire to be part of building a stronger European Union, together. A desire now gone. As British comedian James Corden tweeted: “I can’t get my head around what’s happening in Britain. I’m so sorry to the youth of Britain. I fear you’ve been let down.

So think, when you make decisions, do you think across the business? What about across the generations? To create a future of engagement, don’t ignore those who will be climbing the pipeline and running the business in years to come.

3. Incentivise, don’t terrify

There were of course some extreme politicians involved in the Leave campaign (ahem, Nigel Farage) whose pleas and promises bordered between superficial and downright racist. However it cannot be ignored that on the Remain campaign, it was just as bad. The government issued door-to-door patronising leaflets sharing their “guesswork” for how much poorer you would be without the EU. We had President Obama state that the UK would go to the "back of the queue" for trade (which became quite the social media joke as the British consider queuing one of our special skills). As a lot of this Remain messaging came from the government and senior politicians, people began to see it as propaganda, and rally against the data in a sort of “don’t tell me what to do” way. On the flip side, you had people like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson who started to rise as the authentic, down to earth, pro-Leave guys who worried about the British public and wanted to give us the best chance for superb healthcare (an extra “£350m a week” for the NHS), more jobs, and enthusiastic patriotism. Isn’t this a common learning for all leaders? Show people a stick and they will run in the opposite direction. Listen to them, show empathy, provide some incentives, and they will follow. Consider then, when launching your next solution, or driving your next change, do you know your audience? Are you connecting with them on their level? Have you evaluated what’s in it for them?

No one knows where Britain or Europe will evolve to from this decision, but it is indeed a milestone in history. Will Scotland now leave Britain? Will the British Pound ever get back to the strength we once enjoyed? Will other countries leave the EU? I don’t know. All I do know is that the responsibility of politicians as country leaders has never been more apparent and their importance never more humanly felt. I also know that should a vote to re-join the EU ever be on the cards then I hope the above lessons have been well learned by those leading the charge. #Breturn…on behalf of British millennials, let’s make it happen.

Verity Creedy is UK sales leader with DDI in the United Kingdom.

Posted: 27 Jun, 2016,
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