Brexit Lessons On Independence And Leadership


George Bradt

July 6, 2016

The UK’s vote to exit the EU is a wake up call for all of us. It is the result of some important failures in leadership by the EU’s leadership, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and the leader of the “Leave” campaign, Boris Johnson. And it is the result of strong leadership by Boris Johnson and a host of others, proving once again that leaders can do poorly and well at the same time.


Lesson #1: You’re only leading if others are following you.

The EU leadership has known about the UK’s concerns for a while. As Fraser Nelson pointed out in his WSJ article, those leaders thought the UK was bluffing about leaving. They were wrong.

Merkel made the same mistake with the UK that the UK made with its American colonies. She forgot that over the long term, we are all independent volunteers. Some volunteers can walk out any time they want. Some can invoke Article 50. Some need a revolution to establish their independence. Merkel assumed the UK would continue to follow her lead no matter what.

Lesson #2: Choose your field of battle wisely.

Wellington famously paraded his troops up, down and around Waterloo before settling on exactly the right high ground spot to defend. That was one of the contributors to his victory over Napoleon.

History will show that Cameron gave away his high ground position the minute he called for a general referendum on Leave/Remain. He could not and did not control the general population. He could and did control parliament. That’s the field of battle he should have chosen.

Lesson #3: Be ready to lead.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, Boris Johnson and the other Leave leaders were like dogs chasing cars. They had no idea what to do when they actually caught the car. There was no plan for how to move forward in calling Article 50 to formally exit the EU, no plan for how to renegotiate trade deals, no plan for how to deal with immigration, no plan at all. They weren’t ready to lead.

This is part of why Boris Johnson has chosen not to run for Prime Minister.

Lesson #4: Emotional arguments beat rational arguments.

On the other hand, Johnson and the other Leave leaders did a masterful job of convincing people to leave. As Carmine Gallo pointed out in Forbes, they owned the story throughout. They kept the message simple. And they made emotional connections with voters. The emotional argument about keeping the UK safe from the immigrants trying to steal UK jobs and from EU bureaucrats syphoning away 350 million pounds a week won out over the government’s rational arguments about long-term economic well being.

Implications for you

The lessons apply to your personal and business leadership as well as to international relations.

Lesson #1: You’re only leading if others are following you.

Leadership is about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. It’s not about you. It’s not even about the team. It’s about the shared purpose, the cause. If you stay focused on this, so will your followers.

Lesson #2: Choose your field of battle wisely.

Figure out what matters most to those you care about most. Focus all your love and attention there in choosing where to play and how to win. You can’t win all the battles all the time. But you can win the ones you care about most if you focus your efforts there.

Lesson #3: Be ready to lead.

Ask “what if?” Make sure you have contingency plans for unexpected setbacks – and unexpected advances. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, especially if he’s got a plan.

Lesson #4: Emotional arguments beat rational arguments.

Learn from Charlie Shimanski and drive your message at the emotional heart of the mission. Use your rational arguments to support the emotional points you make while leading.

Choose your field. Focus on emotions. Be ready to lead others.


Click here for an overall executive summary of the New Leader’s Playbook and links to each of its 300+ individual articles on Forbes organized by category.

This article was written by George Bradt from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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