[June 25, 2016] By now everyone has heard of the vote by British citizens to leave the European Union, Brexit, and have listened to pundits about what it means for the future of Britain. While no one really knows what exactly the future will bring, one thing we do know is that it will create challenges and opportunities alike. For those of us who study leadership, there are things we can learn from the historic vote and those are what I would like to cover here.
- People love their independence and freedom. Likewise, anything that shackles Britain’s citizens is likely to be rejected. For example, the EU Commission imposed external rules that were not all consistent with British values or traditions and surprisingly British politicians supported those rules. Leaders need to be aware that it is best to reinforce and support societal values than to oppose them.
- Dissatisfaction with traditional political leadership has reached precipitous levels in Europe and America. People feel that politicians no longer take action in their best interests; a common complaint about leaders generally. The EU’s demand for increased immigration (Islamic immigrants do not share British values) to each of the EU nation states is seen as a threat to British culture and to the security of its native citizens.
- Foreigners generally supported Britain remaining in the EU and no one likes outsiders telling them what to do. U.S. President Obama supported Britain staying in the EU and issued a veiled threat when he said they would be “at the back of the queue” for a trade deal with America if Britain quit the EU. This was seen variously as “blackmail,” scaremongering from the pro-EU lobby, and lecturing from foreign elected elites … and not well received.1
- Pro-EU politicians and the mass media were quick to predict many terrible things would happen if Britain left the EU. The citizens of Britain are pretty smart and figured out fast that no one really knows what the future will bring. Those predicting doom and gloom lost their credibility. Politicians and the media have rated very low as trusted institutions for some time now and the vote reinforced that view.
- The experts and polls predicting Britain would remain in the EU got it wrong. Popularity is not leadership and following fads is not also. Neither the politicians, economic experts, nor the pro-EU media could form a consistent and coherent argument favoring Britain staying in the EU and failed to create unity. This vote didn’t reject Europe at all but rejected unelected, bureaucratic officials in Brussels dictating what Britains could and could not do.
Understanding the psychology of people, grounded in pragmatism and experience, is important to any leader who wants success to be more than good luck. It means knowing what makes people “tick” and that differs from culture to culture. It means being able to “connect” with them. This was not accomplished successfully by the pro-EU crowd.
Britain now leads Europe. Will other nations follow?
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