What can we learn about leadership from the EU referendum debate?
Whether you are an ‘innie’, ‘outie’ or ‘undecided’ it is clear that the current referendum debates have created a media hullaballo with politicians, scientists, economists, industry guru’s, and many others all coming out with a view about what is ‘best’.
The thing that seems to be common across the board is a lot of rhetoric and appeals from both sides that seem predicated on playing to various fears –economy, immigration, environment, trade, etc.
So without getting into the debate about whether we should be in or out of Europe I thought I share some views about how the ‘leaders’ seem to have styled the debates and consider what this means for leaders back in their day job.
Oversimplifying a complex problem
Whether to be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of Europe seems like a vast over-simplification of a much more complex and nuanced set of issues.
A common tendency in complex situations can be to fall into a mind-trap of either/or and a referendum debate is a great example of this. Do we want to be in or out? Control our borders or not? Will our economy grow or shrink?
This focus on either/or arguments leaves great scope for disagreement as each side pick holes in their opponents arguments. As a leader it is important to recognise the dangers of trying to reduce complex problems to a simple ‘we do this OR we do that’, especially if you want to achieve sustainable outcomes that generate buy-in and enthusiasm.
In such complex situations it can feel almost impossible to actually start to make a difference. The only way to do so is to start with what we can control, the micro-changes that over time will start to make a difference at the macro-level. Identify your allies who you can work with to start to shift the momentum.
Think of waggling your finger in a fish tank. It’s a small movement but can cause ripples and eddies throughout the entire system.
What is your equivalent at work? Where have you got caught in a mind-trap of ‘either/or’ trying to solve highly complex issues where what might be more helpful is looking at some of the smaller contributing factors that, through dialogue and collaboration, will actually start to make a difference and contribute to solving the bigger issue.
Acknowledge your own part in the system
A big part of the debate seems to be the weight of narrative, generated over successive governments, of all the failures of the EU. These stories, whether urban myth or truth, have certainly left an impression in the public mind about the relative benefits and drawbacks of being in Europe.
It strikes me that successive governments have been quick to champion any ‘wins’ to their own contributions any ‘losses’ to every other party – whether the opposition in some instances, and laid at the feet of Eurocrats probably more often than not.
What this has led to is a weight of public opinion that all the ills of our country are the fault of Europe, and only by ‘being a sovereign state’ can we fix them, and all the good things that have happened have been achieved in spite of Europe.
In essence another either/or mind-trap.
The challenge this has created for the ‘in’ campaigners is they are now trying to fight a weight of public opinion that has been built over many years by various governments or ‘leaders’ who have blamed everyone else for anything that goes wrong any taken credit for anything that goes well.
Even if the arguments for staying in were overwhelming the chances are the sheer negative energy towards Europe, that’s been built over decades, will likely be very difficult to overcome.
This has also left a complete lack of trust in the leaders on both sides of the debate as it seems we simply don’t trust any argument they put forward.
What is your equivalent at work? Where might you not be acknowledging the contributions of others to your wins and your own contributions to some of the losses? What’s happening to your own credibility as a leader and what do you notice about the other leaders in your organisation?
Build a Motivational and Inspirational Purpose
As mentioned above the sides of the debate seem to focus on the downsides of leaving or staying – playing to the paradigm of fear.
Whilst in any case for change there needs to be a certain dissatisfaction with the current state what is also needed is a clear vision of a better future state.
Whilst both sides have clearly given enough rhetoric to create dissatisfaction with the current state neither, in my opinion, have been able to create a vision of what a future might look like that is inspiring and motivating.
The ‘Outie’s’ seem to be building on the mantra of ‘take our country back’ or similar messages. Whilst this might create a great sound-bite, in a world that is ever becoming more interconnected what does ‘take our country back’ really mean. I can’t find an inspirational vision behind this soundbite – rather a backward facing ideology to a time that no longer exists.
The ‘Innie’s’ have completely failed to generate any positivity so far. Clinging to fear based arguments about ‘how the world will collapse if we leave’ in spite of the same people arguing only 6 months ago that it was quite feasible for the UK to be successful outside the EU.
As you have probably noticed from the current state of debate – motivation by dissatisfaction alone doesn’t get people energised.
What is your equivalent? When have tried to make an argument for change and not explored the reasons to be dissatisfied and also gone on to paint an inspiring picture of what the future could be like?
Know what you stand for and how this serves others
The final area I have noticed has been the ever-increasing number of videos and articles displaying what appears to be complete u-turns from the various ‘leaders’ in this debate.
Whether it is Cameron talking to the CBI 6 months ago about how The UK is strong enough to stand alone, and now arguing the dangers of going it alone; or Johnson arguing about the dangers of Turkey joining the EU whilst arguing the opposite 6 months ago or even Corbyn being known for having an anti EU policy then and a pro EU policy now.
Don’t get me wrong – it is perfectly reasonable for a leader to change their mind when presented with new information – in fact we would expect great leaders to be prepared to change their stance in the light of new information otherwise they are simply ideologists in service to their own ego’s.
What this debate has provoked is people changing their stance with very little change in the perceived facts of the situation. This has led to people questioning who the ‘leaders’ in this debate really stand for. Is it themselves and their own ego or is it really the country and the people whom they are supposed to represent.
When you are perceived to be serving your own agenda inevitably you will be perceived to be self-serving and ultimately fail as a leader.