Will The Next Leader Stand Up, Please?

By: David Langdon

Let’s be clear: This is not a political blog. This is a blog about leadership.

It’s been a period of spectacular departures in the UK. England’s football team left the Euro 2016 tournament in dramatic losing fashion, and the country narrowly voted to leave the European Union (EU) after 40+ years of membership. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are seeking new leaders. The Prime Minister resigned. And now, we need a new leader to take the country forward.

The leadership challenge for the UK is profound. Around fifty percent of people wanted to leave the EU, and the rest wanted to remain. The analysts tell us the voting patterns show deep divisions across age, region, and socioeconomics. The nation is divided. Whoever ends up in the leadership front seat faces some serious challenges:

  • Bringing together two sides with opposing views and emotions—the leave camp is ‘happy’ (for now) and the remain camp is ‘dejected and worried’.
  • Leading through two years of prolonged ambiguity and exit negotiations while being upbeat about the state of the economy.

Two sides into one—embrace the differences

If you want long-term success, two sides must become one. The theory is sound: People need to let go of the past and join the future. Easier said than done.

Look at the M&A industry in its effort to merge company cultures. Companies that don’t tackle this issue directly and instead ‘paper over the cracks’ will be exposed later. Is the route to success enabled by giving the business a new name? Selecting new leaders at the top? Rebranding? All these things tackle the obvious and the explicit identity, but the identity purist knows it goes much deeper than that. To begin with, people need to start from a point of agreement.

Coming back to the UK’s case, the new prime minister can talk about how we all need to work together to create the country so the next generation can be successful, e.g. ‘It is the responsibility of us all to play our part in creating the future; we owe it to the next generation’. Rather than shy away from differences, the best-of-the-best leaders acknowledge their existence and use them as strengths. Bringing people together who think differently always results in new and better ways of working. In the political world, we might call this a cross-party working committee. Whatever the name, it is imperative that people listen to each other. It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in, but it takes more courage to listen to someone else’s points of view—and maybe even change your mind. People entering into this process need to do so with the right mind-set, and it starts with the team at the top being in rock-solid agreement on how they need to work together. No exceptions and no divisions. This is a time for unity and strength. Pick the right team members.

Focus on the future

Emotions shape our thinking more than we know. It is hard to let go of the past and not romanticise it.

To change, we need the rational head to understand and agree and the heart to want to change. People need something to be excited about. Leaders who are able to engender excitement about the future—and genuinely make people believe—will create momentum and followership. Frankly, some leaders are better than others at inspiring people and bringing them along. Put more prosaically, there is a right leader for every situation, and some people are better suited to leading through transformational change than others. Know your leadership strengths.

 

Note from the author:
I’ve seen leadership in action. The Australian rugby union team was beaten 3–0 by the English in an international test series. Such defeats are rare, especially on Aussie soil. What was most impressive to me was not the English victory, but the leadership shown by the Australian captain in defeat. Interviewed live on television immediately after the heat of the battle, he made it clear that his team ‘owned the defeat’ and that they would come back stronger. He was hurting but made no excuses. In his message there was no looking back, just a plain and simple focus on the future and what needs to be done next time. Sports is tough, and rugby union is very tough. Leadership is always about focusing people on what we do tomorrow.

 

 

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