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Leadership lessons from Brexit

In our last newsletter we spoke to Peter Birdsall from Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands about the ramifications from Brexit for the EU as well as Great Britain. This time we want to bring you the insider view: Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship from London Business School, has published his take on the British decision that has caused a worldwide outcry.



"Leadership is the art of making difficult judgements in the face of uncertainty, and it is about shaping a path for others to follow", Birkinshaw writes. And the political turmoil of the Brexit has offered up all sorts of lessons about how to fail - and occasionally how to succeed - as a leader.

1. Emotion beats logic, and hope beats fear

This was the first lesson Birkinshaw discovered in the Brexit turmoil. "Since Aristotle's time, effective leaders have recognised the power of emotional appeal as a complement to rational argument." Or as the Greek would have said: pathos versus logos. According to Birkinshaw the Leave campaigners focused their message at voters' hearts not their heads, and on upbeat, positive themes: patriotism, freedom and hope.  The Remain campaigners peddled hard logic and fear.

2. Experts don't count for much at all

Today's world is so complex that everyone needs to rely on the knowledge of someone else for something. However, everyone seems to have had enough of listening to the experts be it from the consequences of Brexit to the effects of global warming. "The arguments are so unfathomable that people give up trying to get to the truth, and fall back on gut feel," says Birkinshaw. "Deep expertise and sophisticated analysis gets you only so far: If you want to bring people with you, you also need emotional conviction and you need to learn how to harness intuition more effectively."

3. Activism is a priceless quality

According to the professor Farage's strength is his activism: "While I disagree with everything he says, I have a grudging respect for Nigel Farage. As a professional politician, he is a loser, failing seven times to get elected as an MP. But as a grassroots activist he is hugely impressive.  His slogans, such as 'take back control', have carried the day; he has tapped skilfully into the zeitgeist in the country; he has built an army of supporters; he has exhibited enormous personal resilience," Birkinshaw says.

4. Know the limits of crowd-sourcing

Crowd-sourcing techniques have helped to tap into the ideas and expertise across large firms on multiple occasions in the past few years, but this has its limits, writes the business school academic. "When faced with a difficult question, people often answer an easier question. " In the referendum, the question (should the UK leave the EU?) was too complex so people replaced it with the easier question: "Are you happy with the state of the world right now?"  
The lesson to be learnt for leaders: "Don't fall into the trap of opening up big, unstructured questions to your entire workforce."

5. Leaders reap what they sow

Boris Johnson is Birkinshaw's example for this lesson learnt. "Immediately after the Brexit victory, you could see from his body language that he was starting to wonder what on earth he had done," he writes. Having treated the campaign like an Oxford debate with clever arguments and put downs, but with no cares for the consequences, he was reaping the rewards afterwards. 

For leaders this shows that it's important to stay true to yourself and stay on good terms with those around you.  "If you become too opportunistic, or if you start making empty promises, you will pay for it later," says the professor.

6. Time your run carefully

... is lesson number six that Birkinshaw has drawn from the Brexit experience. The right timing is everything if you want to be the leader. The challenge is to look ahead, play out the scenarios, and ask yourself, is this really the job I wanted to take on?

7. You aren't a leader if you don't have any followers

Formal authority counts for almost nothing, states Birkinshaw. "Leadership is a function of what you say and do that attracts others to follow you."  He deducted lesson number seven from the fact that Nigel Farage had influence but no authority, whereas Jeremy Corbyn had a formal mandate but no influence within the parliamentary Labour party.

The question everyone should ask themselves therefore is: "Why Should Anyone be Led by You?"

For the full article go to:
London Business School

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