How important is the man in the middle?

The Undecided Courtesy: The Odyssey Online 2015

The Undecided
Courtesy: The Odyssey Online 2015

Now that the contest is over, what lessons does the Brexit referendum provide about leadership? The answer is many, but for managing change, three leap out.

Firstly, as the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ supporters illustrated, when someone offers an argument that coincides with your own views, it is more likely to be accepted without too much challenge. Spending time with those that agree with you is therefore valuable as recognition of their support, but will detract from your ability to overcome the inertia and opposition of others. It is similar to the trap of surrounding yourself with ‘yes men’.

Second, where people are opposed to what you are doing and have deeply held beliefs or values as the basis of their opposition, no amount of logic or data will change their mind. For instance, in one business I know, there is a strong belief that new IT-based systems and processes are just too complicated for the business and unnecessary. Proposals to introduce new IT systems therefore become difficult to debate and very hard to implement. If the change is fundamental to your business, objectors may just have to go.

Third, where people are undecided, they often demand solid data to support the validity of a proposition or vision. The most noticeable request from ‘floating voters’ in the referendum was for more ‘facts’ as opposed to the forecasts of experts and the thinly disguised pseudo-facts advanced by both sides in the campaign.

While it is hard to say what ‘facts’ would have satisfied people, the demand for them indicated a lack of understanding about the situation confronting them. In the absence of that understanding, the emotional appeal from Brexiters of “taking back control” seems to have held sway. This is similar to the appeal Trump is trying for with “making America great again” and “the US will be safe once I’m elected”. As the aftermath of the Brexit referendum has shown, appeals to emotion in this way can lose their lustre after the event even though they can be very powerful at the time.

Bringing people with you and getting their buy-in to changes they find uncomfortable is one of the most difficult challenges for anyone in a leadership position. Recent events suggest that spending time with those that already agree with you or those that are vehemently opposed is important, but less valuable than spending time with those that are merely doubtful.



  1. hpartnership2013 · · Reply

    great insights, Mike. Too often we lose a lot of time and energy trying to convince those with the most strongly held beliefs – to no avail. It pays to know where to direct your energies. As the Brexit saga continues….I was listening to a Michael Heseltine interview on the radio this morning and he emphasised the primacy of Parliament, who will make the final decision – implying that the referendum result may or may not be accepted by Parliament. This puts Theresa May in a very interesting leadership position – how does she try to influence her Parliamentary colleagues? What does she believe, and what does she think her mandate is? Raises some challenging ethical and political (in both senses) dilemmas….

  2. Hmmmm, one of the interesting ironies here is that actually no one knew the so called facts! This is why the whole argument turned upon gut feel and the emotional desire to take back control! It probably also accounts for the age gap profile of those who were ins and the outs!

    Going forwards, I cannot see that any UK Government (of any complexion) could possibly ignore the referendum result, no matter how attractive that option might appear to some. The PM has already pledged that Brexit means Brexit, whilst the referendum was not of itself a decision by a Government, it does record the will of the people who voted at a particular moment in time. Woe betide anyone who then tried to stop that will being implemented. The few weeks of chaos post Brexit would be nothing to the years of division that would follow such an attempt to stamp out the democratic will of the people.

  3. hpartnership2013 · · Reply

    Peter, yes I agree – both about the emotive nature of the debate and the risks of ignoring the referendum result. I was quite taken aback by Heseltine’s comment. In any case, Theresa May finds herself leading a position that she was not in agreement with (Brexit) but is now, on good principles, committed to leading in order to get the best deal for Britain. And unifying the party behind it after a highly divisive and emotive campaign. The problem is that no one really knows what Brexit means. So Theresa’s task must be about defining it. She seems to be rightly focused on providing as much certainty as she can right now (Brexit means Brexit) but without immediate legal followthrough (taking time on invoking Article 50). There may well be good reasons for this – let the dust settle and gain an objective viewpoint – but it also sends mixed messages. Heseltine’s comment may just be his own idiosyncratic view – but if it’s revelatory of the view of the parliamentary party or any great part of it then Theresa’s leadership task is growing….! We do at this point need collective commitment and clarity about precisely where we are going and how – yet no one does have or indeed can have much clarity about this yet – much less unified commitment. Keeping the UK on course to achieve these two things will undoubtedly be Theresa’s biggest challenge.

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