Brexit: A Lesson in Leadership

April 1, 2019 3:21 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

As the country holds its breath in anticipation (or is it exasperation) about what the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be, I thought it might be useful to have a look at some of the parallels we can draw from the ‘leadership’ of this process.

Here are my ‘Magnificent Seven’ lessons we can learn from our politicians, to help us with our own leadership:

1.Don’t ask questions of people when there is only one right answer (in your opinion) – they are prone to do the opposite

When asking people to get involved in decisions, be clear why you are asking them. Don’t ask them to decide something where you have ulterior motives or to fuel a hidden agenda. Tell them the current reality (don’t lie or embellish – they will find you out and be angrier than if you hadn’t asked them in the first place). Be clear what decisions are yours and yours alone to make – in these cases don’t throw it open to others to decide. Seek views and then make your decision – that is what true leadership is all about.

2.Don’t empower people to make decisions without the full and accurate facts – otherwise they might make a different decision to the one you wanted them to

An old boss of mine, when asked to review a paper I had written that he hadn’t requested or had input to, said ‘be careful of asking for my opinion, I might just give it’. He wasn’t up to speed with what I was proposing and the details behind it and he might well have given me feedback that was contrary to my views/research. I would then have a dilemma – go with what I believe to be right or go with someone’s views I have sought (who happens to pay my wages)

3.Don’t manage by consensus – allowing everyone an equal vote when there are so many other human power plays at stake, will result in chaos and confusion

Leadership is there for a reason – it has stood the test of time and is the best system of governing that we have found. Any ‘self-management’ needs strict parameters and guidance/support systems, otherwise you end up with a camel when you wanted a horse. MPs voting to take control of the house was always doomed to disaster – if they can’t agree with an elected leader of the house, why would they agree with each other, especially when so many people have their eyes on other prizes?

4.Don’t be afraid to revisit decisions if you feel new information has come to light

The best leaders are resolute in their implementation of decisions, but secure enough to keep in touch with people’s views along the way and prepared to revisit decisions that don’t have enough support to ensure they happen effectively.

Weakness in leadership is not making amendments to a decision as you go along but being too stubborn to listen to people at the ‘coalface’, resulting in poor implementation and reduced effectiveness

5.Stay in touch with your customers/staff – don’t become out of touch with their views

It is widely felt, amongst people that voted for both sides of the debate, that there has never been a time when politicians in general have been more out of touch with the average person on the street. Once you lose touch with the people whom you lead or serve, they will eventually get their voice heard, by one means or another. In democracies, this is usually at the ballot box, in organisations they vote with their feet or affect reputation when speaking to customers. Staying in touch with people and how they are feeling is a vital part of leadership.

6.Don’t show your hand too early when negotiating

The fundamental principle of negotiation between two sides is that we will both have to give something away to get what we want. Being clear on your ‘non negotiables’ and sticking to them is important, but both sides are trying to get an outcome whilst giving away as little as possible. Showing what you are willing to give away too early means you have ‘blinked first’ and your ‘opponent’ has the upper hand, being confident that they can hold out for more.  Good negotiation results in a ‘Win-Win’ where both sides claim victory.

7.Don’t use soundbites – they will come back to bite you

Don’t say things that you might have to go back on later. A big part of trust is built on credibility and when people say things that they believe to be true but then can’t implement, it erodes that trust and people don’t believe the next statement they make. In leadership, it is very difficult to get people to deliver for you without trust. Don’t let your legacy be failed promises such as ‘once in a generation’, ‘red lines’, ‘additional funds available’ or ‘six tests’, if you may not be able to deliver on them. 

Finally, words are very important and can rapidly become self-fulfilling prophecies. We are now in a Playing to Avoid Losing place, where any outcomes from these negotiations are going to be seen as ‘bad’ by a large section of the population and parliament. As a result, every bad thing that happens over the next few years will be blamed on Brexit, however true this is, (and we will never truly know as we are not able to have a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment) and we could be in danger of talking ourselves into recession. How much more powerful would it be, for our leaders on both sides to use Playing to Win language, looking at how we make the best of whatever decision is implemented and talking about the possibilities that any change opens up?

Heeding these lessons up front will hopefully mean you can avoid having to fall on your sword to get people to agree to your decisions!

If you want to talk about how to help your leaders to be at their best more of the time, and avoid any ‘Brexit pitfalls’ e-mail me at or call 07710 003029.

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This post was written by David Tomkinson

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