What can we learn about leadership from Brexit?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016 - 18:28

By AIM Education and Training

As the dust settles in the aftermath of what was humorously titled Brexit, the less amusing consequences that now face both the European Union and the United Kingdom become clear. From tumbling currencies to changes in government officials, the effects of the referendum are broad and deep. While an entire nation stands on the brink of an abyss, David Cameron looks on from the sidelines in despair. In many ways, the Prime Minister had a huge role to play in the lead up to the referendum and in other ways, his failures as a leader were amplified by the eventual collapse of the Stay campaign.

Whether it's through leadership training or experience, knowing your audience is essential when effecting organisational change.

With Leave coming home the stronger, what could David Cameron have done to ensure that his vision for the United Kingdom was heard above the often xenophobic and distorted cries of the Leave campaigners? Here are two strategies David Cameron could have learned from a leadership course that would have helped his campaign.

Emotion vs. the facts: A case of poor communication

Back in 2013, the Conservative Party was tearing itself apart. In a final gamble to save the party from self-destruction, David Cameron made a promise: If he was re-elected he would implement a referendum that would decide whether the UK would stay in or leave the EU.

At the time, the decision was a fairly straightforward ploy to create a unified party. However, what seemed like a low-risk decision turned into a high-risk throw of the dice. 

One of the major critiques of David Cameron was his lack of enthusiasm for the campaign. As the leader of a nation, a state and a government, David Cameron reacted rather lazily to the referendum. When he finally realised that the Leave campaign was gaining wide support, his communication strategies were severely lacking. 

The Prime Minister unloaded statistics after statistics, throwing in a few opinions from experts in economic theory for good measure. However, if he or his team was aware of why and where the Leave campaign was attaining their support, they would have realised cold facts were not the answer. 

Even in the commercial sector, where facts, numbers and quantitative data have an almost divine respect, CEOs know when to shift gears. Take the 2016 LinkedIn stock crash. Following the 40 percent fall in stock prices, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner reassured employees - not with facts about the financial state or future of the company but - by addressing their fears and reminding them of the company's vision.

"We are the same company we were the day before our earnings announcement. I'm the same CEO I was the day before our earnings announcement. You're the same team you were the day before our earnings announcement. And most importantly, we have the same mission, vision, and sense of purpose in terms of our ability to create economic opportunity. None of that has changed," he said. 

David Cameron's poor attempts at communicating the wider implications of a vote to leave were embarrassingly apparent. His single focus on statistics and cold-hard facts failed to compete with the emotive campaign of Leave. This was a platform for Cameron to not only be correct, but to be inspirational as well.

Failure to secure cross-party support

There is no denying the animosity between political parties in the UK. The relationship between David Cameron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is indicative of this great divide. 

While both grew up in wealthy surroundings, Corbyn is a staunch left-wing activist having worked with labour unions for much of his early life. Cameron on the other hand is an archetype conservative, having graduated from the Bullingdon Club with other like-minded individuals, such as Boris Johnson. 

The friction between the two party leaders has been a constant theme ever since Corbyn was elected to lead the Labour Party. However, it was also one of the major reasons why Cameron failed to guide the Stay campaign to victory. 

In a recent Politico article, it's reported that senior staff remembers of the campaign almost begged Corbyn to rally with the prime minister. They were rightly worried about Labour voters wavering in their commitment to Stay, as their leader's support was lukewarm at best. 

Campaign staff were so desperate that they sent down former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown to persuade Corbyn to change his mind. His steadfast response to collaboration was surprising to many.

However, as the leader and figurehead of the campaign, Cameron shouldered responsibilities to see a satisfactory outcome from the vote. What this means is that he was obligated to put his own history with the Labour leader aside to help drive the campaign home. Yet, this did not happen. 

What was the issue? Well, it would seem that Cameron was not motivated to contribute to the success of the campaign and failed to align his own interests with the needs of the campaign and the country. His inability to put their differences behind him was a major contributor to the downfall of the Stay campaign as well as his own career in politics. 

While the failures of the Stay camp were not all of Cameron's fault, his failure to lead from the front was a major issue. Neglecting cross-party collaboration due to his own interests and failing to communicate with the UK public on their own terms were major reasons for the success of Leave. For leaders around the world, there is a lot to be learnt from David Cameron's actions, but mainly what not to do.