Five Leadership Lessons From Brexit

 On June 23rd, 2016 Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum called by the then Prime Minister David Cameron.  Following the historic vote, the British Pound plummeted and millions of UK citizens expressed shock and regret at the decision.



What lessons can executives in Africa learn from brexit

1. Make Sure Everyone Sees the Big Picture

The big Ooops! reaction expressed from both sides of the voting divide on the morning the results were announced revealed that a substantial proportion of the public did not fully understand the implication of their actions.  There were those who voted to leave, thinking that they were simply voting to ‘make a point’ and express their dissatisfaction, rather than actually contributing to a major economic and political decision.  There were also those who didn’t bother to vote, believing that the outcome for Britain to stay was a given and their individual vote, therefore, would not make a difference.  Many organizations face a similar risk resulting from employees underestimating the impact of their individual contributions, or making erroneous assumptions based on their partial view of a situation.  Leaders must proactively communicate to their employees so that they can connect the dots between their day to day activities and company’s overall performance, ultimately ensuring that they consistently behave in a way that is aligned with the long-term strategic direction of the organization.

2. Understanding the Dynamics of a Multi-Generational Talent Pool

The Brexit vote was clearly divided along generational lines.  Millennials overwhelmingly voted to stay while Baby Boomers and the older Generation X-ers voted to leave.  African societies are marked by their own generational differences that are somewhat distinct from the ‘Millennial’ and ‘Baby Boomer’ experiences but equally shape the norms and aspirations of the individuals who have come of age in various periods of Africa’s history.  The mindsets of employees born pre- and post-independence, for example, or pre- and post-oil (or other natural resource) boom reflect the vast differences in quality of education, maturity of the private sector, level of income inequality and unemployment that have influenced the outlook.  Leaders in Africa need to understand and be able to motivate individuals across the age spectrum to harness the full potential of their teams.

3. Pay Attention to Engagement

Another striking observation from the Brexit vote was the relatively low level of voter participation amongst the younger generation.  While the overall electoral turnout was over 70 percent, barely 40 percent of registered Millennials voted.  Whether as a result of apathy or misplaced confidence, several would-be voters refrained from going to the polls and casting their votes.  When key members of your team do not speak up or show up, your organization is essentially carrying a time-bomb or a load of deadweight.  Either something is going on under the radar, waiting to bubble up to the surface, or nothing is going on and you’re losing money by paying for it.  The end result is that you are likely creating a potentially toxic culture which makes it challenging to retain your high-performers or attract promising new talent.  However you best define it for your sector or market, employee engagement should be a key metric within your organization.

4. Step Outside of Your Bubble

Almost 60% of the London population voted to stay in the EU.  In contrast, 51.9% of the overall UK population voted to leave the EU.  David Cameron’s home base at 10 Downing St. was surrounded by a bubble of individuals who predominantly shared a global outlook and pro-EU perspective that was distinct from the rest of the UK.  Leaders run the risk of isolating themselves from the experience and mindset of the broader employee base, using their interactions with their direct reports and close contacts as a barometer for the sentiments of majority.  With many African companies operating on a regional basis, the challenge of staying attune to the concerns of front-line workers or teams in other geographies is notable.  Regularly spending time in person, or at least in conversation, with a representative snapshot of individuals across the organization will give you a more balanced view of the team.

5. Lean In!

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote and David Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May emerged as the Tory party leader and was eventually confirmed as the successive Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  In doing so, she capitalized on an unexpected opportunity to step into a challenging new leadership situation. Few would have predicted the outcome of the referendum, or David Cameron’s resignation, or Boris Johnson’s refusal to run for Prime Minister. Theresa May’s ascension exemplified the old saying attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca: “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Africa is the land of opportunity.  For executives operating on the continent, being mindful that not every new appointment will come after an annual performance review or a structured interview process, being aware of your strengths and aspirations, and being willing to step out of your comfort zone to pursue new frontiers, will make you more likely to be able to respond appropriately to lucky breaks—wherever they may arise from.

Source for statistics on the vote:

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