The leadership lesson from Brexit

The leadership lesson from Brexit

If you take one constructive lesson from this crisis, let it be a reminder of the absolute imperative of true leadership, writes Will Harris, the former Conservative Party marketing director.

I agreed to write this piece on the flight from London to Singapore. Being a day flight, the natural course of events would be wheels-up, and then get right into it. But 450 words on a situation as fluid as the aftermath of the Brexit vote proved impossible.

As we took off, multiple Tories were popping out of the woodwork, murmuring their leadership credentials, the Shadow Cabinet was threatening open revolt in an effort to out their leader, the referendum petition had gone from 1.3 million to 2.3 million overnight, and seemingly the government had gone into hiding.

It felt as if anything I wrote would be obsolete by the time the giant Airbus (NB. wings built in Wales, fuselage in France) reached the ground once again. So I demurred, slept, and as the fasten seatbelt sign beckoned, started anew with a clear head.

It has been a masochistic privilege to watch events unfurl on a grandiose scale, the like of which we have never seen before.

In business, when something significant happens – an account loss, a strategic shift, a round of redundancies, a death in service – the textbook response we are conditioned to make is one of leadership.

Someone steps up and reassures the herd that all will be well, and that this moment, like others before it, will pass. Heads come up, backs stiffen, we adapt and move on.

In the case of the United Kingdom, three days after that seismic vote, there was a total leadership vacuum.

Precisely no one stepped up. The bloodied prime minister was licking his wounds, punch drunk from a self-inflicted mortal wound. The Leavers seemed to be as shocked at this turn of events as the Remainers.

Rather like George Bush in Iraq, their battle plan had no subsequent plan in the event of victory. The Labour party had turned in on itself, and was trying to shake-off its democratically elected leader, never an easy task. Other significant players on the political stage were either too sectarian (the SNP) or too reviled (UKIP) to play any healing role.

So who would step forward and restore order and trust for the people? Who would unite the two sides of a rent nation, and possibly even the three parts into which the nation is threatening to devolve? Who could Britons rally behind as we looked to re-establish our place in the world after the greatest political misjudgement of our time?

Perhaps a man or woman would emerge from the wreckage, just like they do in the movies (and always have in our history) who would capture the public mood, and march determinedly to sunnier uplands, with us all dutifully trailing behind.

If you take one constructive lesson from the national crisis, let it be a reminder of the absolute imperative of true leadership, whether in everyday business or in events of state.

Will Harris is the former Conservative Party marketing director

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