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.