So far, Brexit has not been leadership’s finest hour. Indeed effective leadership could be considered AWOL. Arguably, it has never been more required since the darkest hours of the Second World War. Brexit will become a leadership case study in years to come. In this article, Steve Kempster examines leadership as a narrative through Brexit in three stages: what happened leading up to the referendum; what has occurred since; and what will be required after we leave the EU.
Where was leadership during the referendum?
This was for sure not David Cameron’s finest hour. Indeed, for the Remain camp, it was hard to identify leadership that was effective. Commentators and researchers on effective leadership agree that leadership is a process of influence, a process to shape sense-making of what is happening, and a process to stimulate action. Effective leadership seeks to do these things through an evocative and desirable narrative. For the Remain leadership camp, the narrative was there – the economic problems that would occur if Brexit happened. The approach was to bombard voters with detail and data. There was no exciting or desirable future being described in a narrative. Nothing was offered about a world to come in the EU that would get the pulse up and the heart pumping.
Contrast that with the Leave camp. Very quickly, the Leave camp shaped sense making of Remain facts as a narrative of ‘project fear’. Aligning the Leave narrative with the NHS – and how the funds for the EU could be diverted to rescue the NHS – had great appeal. I would suggest the facts of the amount of money were not the central point. It was a romantic narrative that spoke to a desire for control, for a future that would be better, and for hope. Not for the first time (and certainly not the last time), we ‘don’t let facts get in the way of a good story’. And, what was the Leave camp’s finest hour? The last comment on Brexit was at the end of a rather tiresome points draw of a debate. Boris Johnson was able to have the final word: ‘When we vote leave and take back control, I believe leave this Thursday can be our country’s Independence Day’. An epic form of narrative – a chance for freedom from the enslaving EU…
It seems plausible to me that with polls so tight that the floating undecided might be captured by such a narrative and a 2% swing might lead to a 52-48% outcome.
What has occurred since?
The context and the complexity of the Brexit negotiations have seemingly paralysed those leading to undertake leadership of meaning, leadership as a narrative. It is understandable that the context of the Prime Minister can be seen as being between a rock and a hard place – captured by the circumstances of being a minority government. However, from a leadership perspective, Brexit is a critical moment for the nation. Leadership orientation has been to serve 52% – rather than reach out for consensus and build a leadership narrative as a ‘one nation’ moment, connecting not dividing and away from partisan party politics, and to an approach that seeks to create a ‘united kingdom’.
Brexit is a ‘wicked problem’ – something we have no experience of and past approaches are not likely to prove successful. In leadership terms, wicked problems require a collaborative and multi-stakeholder approach. It cannot be addressed in a traditional ‘command and control’ style where a leader knows best and dictates the strategy. We have seen such an approach by the government since the referendum. There is an illusion of offering firm and strong leadership – but this has been tested and found wanting. The leadership approach to a wicked problem is about learning, exploring and driving towards consensus. In the context of Parliament, such an approach would manifest as a multi-party cross bench approach. Undoubtedly, this would require extraordinary persuasive leadership narrative to run contrary to the norm – but the circumstances demand this. Where is the compelling and uniting narrative that expresses the problem, the need to overcome the problem, a vision of where we need to move to, what will be gained from travelling this journey, the values that will guide us on the journey, and what’s in it for us all to follow?
Of course, this would not have been easy. But that’s not my point. This is a leadership tale – not a political or economic one. Did advisers have this conversation with the Prime Minister that such leadership is a necessity? If yes what went wrong? If no then there are some serious questions that need to be raised with how leadership is understood and practiced at the most senior levels at such a critical juncture.
As I write this – the morning after the vote of confidence in the Prime Minister – events may have ironically forced a necessary change of leadership direction; an awakening of an alternative leadership approach. The Prime Minister may be on the cusp of letting go of the image of a lone heroic leader battling against the odds to push through her deal for Brexit, to deliver for the 52%, And, towards a greater consensus. Just imagine a different leadership narrative…Her next speech in Parliament surprises all, and delights many, when she gives the speech of her life and reaches out for unity and healing of divisions. A speech that galvanises the Commons towards cross-party consensus, and speaks of a genuine open invitation to the labour leadership to join with her as shared leadership to resolve the impasse and collectively act as partners to pursue the nation’s best interests. History may then be much kinder to this leadership narrative. A leadership moment that becomes as significant as that of Churchill’s speech at the Darkest Hour of the Second World War that drew together his party critics, Parliament and indeed the nation to become a united kingdom. Leadership scholars would recast this case study as a moment of the country coming back together.
What will be required after Brexit has been resolved?
Certainly not more of the same. Whatever happens this must become leadership’s finest hour as we are at a critical fork in the road. New ideas will be required to support and galvanise the country. Some people, perhaps many people, will be anxious and fearful of what may occur. Businesses require assurance and encouragement that UK PLC remains the place to invest and grow. The national spirit, energy and passion need to be galvanised. It is understood that these aspects are the raw ingredients that leaders need to draw together into cooking up a visionary and inspiring narrative.
I have asked my undergraduate students studying leadership communications to craft the speech required post-Brexit. They are given the complexity of the context, and encouraged to use the principles of effective leadership communications to develop an evocative narrative. I hope to send some of the best to the Cabinet Office, in case the advisors might find alternatives helpful for the coming weeks.
One of the best leadership speeches was that of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ – seeking to reshape the moral spirit and justice of a nation. Drawing on this speech I am reminded that although Brexit is important, it is not as important as aspects of family, community, peace and humanity. In the words of Martin Luther King:
‘In the process of gaining [Brexit] we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for [Brexit] by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline’
If we imagine a world post-Brexit in which the UK is being abundantly successful, we must hope that the success comes from a country that has come back together, and has found a new sense of united confidence and societal purpose – a (re)United Kingdom.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics.
Professor Steve Kempster is Director of the Lancaster Leadership Collaboratory at Lancaster University Management School.