Brexit Demands Leadership, Not Just Management
Bold Cultural Architects will be Central to Post-Brexit Success

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“I cannot give you a formula for success,” said Herbert Bayard Swope, “but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: try to please everybody.” 

Rarely in its recent history has the UK needed leadership that’s aware of that maxim as much as it does right now.

In the lead-up to Brexit negotiations and the inevitable emotional, economic and political highs and lows they will produce, this country needs bold leadership. I mean leadership as distinct from political management.

Of course, leadership and management are both valuable assets in times of potentially seismic change. However, only leadership will facilitate a proactive, inclusive, reassuring and empowering move toward the future.

As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, management is focused on metrics, benchmarks, measurable targets and tactics. Leadership is fundamentally aligned more with shaping mindsets, discovering entirely new ways of doing things and mapping out longer-term strategies.

Management is, generally speaking, about structural engineering. Leadership is about cultural architecture; building a different cultural milieu in which people feel that they have the confidence and security to innovate and prosper.

The UK has been a part of the European Union and the EEC before it for forty years. The first test of whether the UK will flourish outside of the EU club will be the type of leadership it produces from here – in politics, civil service, business, the economy and much more.

As Brexit negotiations begin, this country – and Europe as a whole – will require a brand of leadership that is marked firstly by an ability to unite people, promoting inclusion without seeking to ignore cultural or aspirational differences.

In the UK’s referendum the voting result was 52 percent for “remain” to 48 percent for “leave”. This reflects how divided the community has become – on regional and, to some degree, generational lines.

The division is seen within local communities and even, reportedly, within families. Thankfully, most British people are far too sensible to allow emotions to spill out into violent protest or even unhelpful forms of civil disobedience. 

Our politicos will be aware, however, that social cohesion is already fragile on some fronts. There is much discussion already about technology, health, wealth and opportunity gaps, which are widening for some sections of the community – and not just the poorest. We should hope that getting the best deal from Brexit will unite us more than it divides us.

For our political leaders, the challenge of promoting unity begins at home, in their own House. Many of the loudest calls for a second referendum have come from within or around Westminster – from MPs, leaders of political parties and even a former Prime Minister or two.

Meanwhile, there has been talk – it’s not treated terribly seriously by pundits – of a possible general election if Parliament does not ratify the Government’s final EU strategy.

Given the relative weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition and the fact that the Labour leader basically sided with the “leave” campaign by default anyway, this seems very unlikely.

However, any serious stalemates within Parliament over negotiating positions might at least inspire Europhiles of all Parties to take advantage of public confusion and campaign for a second referendum.

A second vote would be in nobody’s best interests, least of all those of the British voters, the majority of whom would hopefully see it as a giant exercise in political expediency and hypocrisy.

It is disingenuous to say, as some anti-Brexiteers are saying now, that we should not have had an EU referendum in the first place – because we are not governed by plebiscite but by elected MPs – and then to demand a second referendum.

When Britons voted to leave the EU, they were not expressing an opinion but issuing an instruction to Parliament. The Parliament decided to grant the citizenry the right to make the decision on our ongoing EU membership.

By voting one way or the other, Brits were not merely expressing a preference, they were presenting an order to their elected representatives. MPs are chared with acting on that instruction, whatever their personal views. They are, after all, servants of the people – or they’re meant to be.

Theresa May and her government will need to navigate the choppy waters inside Parliament with skill and courage. They may even, in one respect, need to take a leaf from the playbook of one D.J. Trump. They might do well, at times, to take a two tiered approach to the domestic debate; drip-feeding then defending their basic intentions directly to the public, while simultaneously presenting the detail before Parliament.

This may not seem the British way and I gather very few people here would want to see Mrs May become a Twitterphile in the ilk of the new US President.  Yet the public must be brought along on the journey and the Government must use all the technology at its command, including old and new media, to keep lines of communication open, to persuade rather than cojole.

We the people (as they like to say across the pond) do not need to have a say on every detail – that’s what MPs are paid to do. We do, however, need to have a sense of collective ownership of a process that will, after all, impact our children and grandchildren more than ourselves, hopefully (but not inevitably) for the better.

The other thing our leaders must do in the lead-up to Brexit, is to avoid any expressions of elitism.

The Brexit vote was a product of a number of factors, some social, others economic and even emotional. One of those was an anti-establishment feeling; a sense that the governing classes were ignoring the needs of the people who had elected them.

This same “out-of-touch” viewpoint was boosted by the MPs expenses scandal of a decade ago. It now affects other major institutions in British society, including the courts, the police, business and the media. Since the great recession, it has contributed to a general trust deficit which casts a shadow at times over almost every foundational British institution.

Arguably, the EU did not help itself win favour prior to (and following) the Brexit vote. In recent decades, the EU has time and again over-stepped the mark where national sensibilities – if not sovereignty – are concerned. Its top layer has behaved with an attitude of exclusion.

Some of its most outspoken leaders have pushed not only an openly federalist agenda. This despite the fact that federalism was never a major plank of the Union for which member states signed up.

“Ever closer union” has long featured in EU and EEC documents, but has never been clearly defined in any official way. Yet from their personal pronouncements, we can see that some career EU leaders want it to mean “European empire”.

Going into the referendum, many Europhiles within the UK – myself included – considered ever closer union to be a good thing if it meant a close-knit trading group of interdependent nation-states. But we were less enthusiastic about an ever closer political union, with largely unelected bureaucrats at its apex.

The EU has sometimes brazenly ignored the results of national referenda on new treaties. It has clumsily sidestepped rejection using technicalities. The EU has had its fair share of successes – most notably in promoting internal travel, dialogue, trade, security and above all peace. These should not be underappreciated – especially the last.

Most recently, though, it has shown arrogance in its initial handling of the migration question and in its efforts to solve common problems through elitist back-channel tactics. Angela Merkel’s negotiations with Turkey, for example, were well intentioned, but they were perceived by some citizens in the EU as unrepresentative and unsupportable.

During the UK’s referendum, this perceived arrogance made it hard for some friends of the EU to make a case in its defence.

If Britain’s domestic politicos are to navigate the choppy waters of Brexit, they will need to shape negotiation positions that are inclusive in tone and intent, while not vague in terms of strategic goals.

They will need to promote friendship with the EU and an ongoing commitment to the common good for Europe as a whole, refusing to see negotiation as a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game.

They must do this, though, without backing down on bottom-line negotiating positions. There must be none of Barack Obama’s talk of “red-lines”, which turn out to be nothing more than pink smudges.

In the immediate wake of the Brexit vote, I reflected that the British spirit of pluck in times of deep uncertainty has become legendary. The UK’s ability to produce highly creative entrepreneurs, inventors and disruptive thinkers has earned kudos the world over. It’s high time those qualities were embodied in and projected by the nation’s leaders.  

Our government will need to promote unity, but it cannot please everyone – and it shouldn’t waste time trying. Mrs. May shows signs of being up to the task. Let’s hope her Cabinet, Party and Parliamentary colleagues will also rise to the occasion and inspire us, as one diverse yet cohesive nation, to do the same.

Watch Mal Fletcher's BBC discussion on this subject


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