Post-Brexit Leadership: Where are we going?

06 July 2016 -


Nigel Nicholson on why strong leaders are needed to make up for the hole left behind following the greatest political revolution of our generation

Guest blogger Nigel Nicholson CCMI

We have just witnessed probably the biggest political revolution of my lifetime - and I have been around for a long time! We have lost not just the Prime Minister but a bunch of former likely successors have exploded before our eyes, while our chief Opposition party is engaged in a bitter civil war between the members and elected representatives.

And we just lost the England football team manager!

The causes of the revolution are being pored over by many commentators. I shall not add to these except to say that how and why this happened is the product of multiple causes: discontents, aspirations, impulses, accidents, populist sloganeering, and fanciful narratives about the future.

The role of leaders in all of this does not cover them in glory. They create situations and then are chased by them - sometimes the other way around, something unexpected happens and then they play it by ear, often badly. So what now? What is needed and what will happen?

The leadership text books are no help at this point. The last thing that is needed is some left or right field "transformational" leader to pump everyone up with new or even old dreams.

Rather we should attend to what has been called "The Law of the Situation". It is astonishing how time and again leaders are blind to this law.

They are the last people to awaken to how the world has changed beyond the limits of their adaptive capability. They think they are men and women for all seasons, but they are not, sadly. PM Cameron, did, to his credit see this after the vote by promptly resigning, and disappointed leader-in-waiting Johnson also did, belatedly and exited the race. A dispassionate observer looking at how things have unfolded could have predicted both. Neither man fits the post-Brexit landscape.

The Law of the Situation, as I have reformulated it, says the following:

  1. Seeing is the primary duty of leadership - to appraise realistically what is the leadership situation and what forces are at play. What narratives are swirling about? Who is doing what and why? In the present case the revolution has thrown all the pieces in the air, and we are just seeing how they are hitting the ground. But these pieces are organic and as they land they start to self-organise around dominant emotions and perceptions, which remain fragmented and conflicting. There are many ways of looking at this situation, but what is needed most is a dispassionate appraisal of options, an urgent need to fix upon immediate problems, and perspective that goes beyond the short term.
  2. We need leadership processes that fit the situation - we need to discover the capabilities in our people and institutions that will address the challenge. In the present case what is needed is a leader with the capability of providing a leadership umbrella for the processes that will bring the right cross-section of people together to develop strategy. There is a lot of talent around us, always, as well as leaders who are for the moment "hidden" - people who have been bit players or on the sidelines, for whom the time to take responsibility has never been awakened. These processes must be ones that engage talents on the real-world issues - trade deals, migration policy, and governance are top candidates, but more important than these is the need for coherent communications to and with the people about generated collective willpower for the right actions.
  3. Cometh the moment cometh the man, or more likely, the woman - the third element of my adaptive leadership framework is the quality of leaders - who has the right profile to lead us? Here it is important to recognise that there is no one right form of leadership - there are as many models as there are types of leader. My leadership formula says effectiveness is "the right person, at the right time and place, doing the right things". For sure right now we need a vision, but we do NOT need a visionary leader, but rather someone who will discover and release the visions of smart and aware people, and oversee their being worked into coherent feasible strategies. The goal as ever is to create adaptive capability in our systems and our people, so we can move with confidence into an uncertain future, remembering that the future is not waiting to be discovered but to be created.

This revolution has real costs - not just material, but transaction costs of tempo, time, and emotions. Already some soothing of the latter is happening, but a lot of anger will stay in the air for a long time. Negative energy can be transformed into positive energy, and that is a prime task of leadership.

All these thoughts apply equally to the Conservative Party, de facto the leadership of the UK Parliament, and to the hapless Labour Party, fighting history as well as the present. European institutions and governments also need to face up to the Law of the Situation. It is time to look and move forward.

As for the England football team. Words and analysis fail me at this point.

Nigel Nicholson is a professor at London Business School and a CMI companion

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