Brexit: A Cautionary Tale for Leaders Everywhere

Brexit: A Cautionary Tale for Leaders Everywhere

By Tierney Remick

What happens when leaders – whether in the private or public sector – are disconnected from their constituencies?  Leaders who operate this way now do so at their peril and at great risk to the organization.  Political case in point: Brexit.

CEOs may believe they are communicating continuously – with thousands of employees around the world simultaneously in a “town hall,” for example, or in a regular employee newsletter – and those are important channels to share key strategic messages and developments.  But leaders also need to build into planned communications opportunities for ongoing dialog with stakeholders, where each side gets the chance to both talk and listen.  In the absence of this sort of engagement, a leader is unlikely to learn, beyond his or her direct reports and senior levels of management, critical pieces of information, such as:  What do those in the organization think about key strategic initiatives?  How do they link them, or not, to the work they do every day?  What is working, and most critically, what is not working in the organization that no one else is sharing with the CEO?  Likewise, what are the crucial concerns of shareholders and other external stakeholders, such as local communities?  Communicating effectively with every segment of your constituency, not just those closest to you who are most likely to say what you want to hear, is crucial to success in our social media era where information is shared, including your employees’ views of management, and readily available.

Whatever the fallout from Brexit, once the dust settles, it is a case study and a cautionary tale of what happens when leaders fail to listen to the breadth constituents’ views.  Employees who feel neglected resent major decisions being made that affect them but in which they feel they have no voice can revolt and leave; shareholders can vote with their stock; and voters will seek more attractive alternatives.  All of these constituencies are adept at sniffing out the difference between true engagement and simply a listening exercise by their leaders intended to mollify. And in charged political environments, where people are afraid and alienated, there can be terrible consequences.

Leadership entails making hard choices, choices that can’t possibly be popular with everyone.  But leaders will ultimately be judged by whether they are leading in the best interests of the enterprise, or just in the interests of a select few. The top down or command-and-control-style leadership of the past may produce short term results, but there can be unintended consequences, including detrimental and long-lasting negative effects.  In the corporate realm that can mean losing the commitment of the people who make the products, serve the customers, drive profitable growth and, manage the operations.  Or worse, maybe even losing valued employees to competitors

Modern leadership is about ongoing engagement and interactive communication. It is about shared accountabilities between leaders and all their teams throughout various levels of their organization, not a chosen few at the top.  It is about having the courage to wade into the difficult, perhaps even uncomfortable discussions. Modern Leadership is a reciprocal agreement that entails leaders’ commitment and investment in the people they serve, just as they expect these people – whether employees or the voting public – to be committed and invested in leadership’s vision.