Few stories in the world this year have done a better job shining a spotlight on leadership more than the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.
After a bitter, divisive and at times violent referendum campaign, the British voted narrowly but convincingly to leave the European Union. The “Brexit” result has ravaged stock markets around the world with worries that a new era of nationalism and xenophobia – the two principle narratives in the ‘Leave’ campaign – will encourage similar revolts around the world.
For my part, Brexit is a fascinating study about how leaders respond when they fail.
Now this is a topic I’ve written about in prior blogs – whether it’s been about leaders stepping down when they haven’t been able to drive the performance of their companies, or when leaders realize they need to step down because a new kind of leadership was required for the future.
But in the case of Brexit, a whole new set of leadership issues emerged for me.
Let’s start with soon-to-be-former British Prime Minister David Cameron. The leader of the Conservative Party government is widely blamed for agreeing to hold, and then losing, the referendum. Many of his own cabinet abandoned their prime minister and campaigned for the ‘Leave’ side.
This would be a typical response for many leaders – fail to deliver and you must quit. But is that the right response in this scenario? There is a very good chance that by resigning, Cameron is only making a bad situation worse.
This is a delicate time in the history of Great Britain. Emotions are running high, and resentment and hostility are the order of the day. Certainly, it’s a time when strong, steady leadership is needed to keep the counter on an even keel.
By leaving, Cameron has left the U.K. in a very difficult spot. I believe real leadership is needed now more than ever and Quartz.com nailed it when they reflected on this mess.
“If, as some hopeful pundits speculate, Brexit may yet be halted, it will take extraordinary leadership to mollify the pro-Leave voters who will feel cheated. If Brexit goes ahead, it will take equally extraordinary leadership to steer the economy through its impacts, and to negotiate new trade deals with an unforgiving EU and other countries.” No matter what the way forward, strong leadership will be key.
Remarkably, Cameron was not the only leader from the U.K. to resign in the face of adversity.
Just a few days after Great Britain voted to leave the E.U., Roy Hodgson, the coach of the English football team resigned after Iceland eliminated his team from the UEFA European Championship. It is considered one of the greatest upsets ever in this tournament.
“I would have loved to stay on for another two years,” Hodgson said. “However, I am pragmatic and I know we are in the results business. My contract was always up after the Euros, so now is the time for someone else to oversee the progress of this young, hungry and extremely talented group of players.”
In Hodgson’s case, I see a leader that was given very strict targets for performance. England’s record in pre-UEFA competitions was appalling. Try as he might, he could not deliver the results that were expected of him.
In this instance, I do believe resignation was the right move. He had clear performance expectations from his superiors, and understood the stakes fully when he entered this tournament. Although he was, and probably still is, a highly respected soccer coach, he could not deliver, this time.
But the quitting wasn’t quite over yet. The week after Cameron and Hodgson pulled the ripcord, UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage – the man who was the lead campaigner for the ‘Leave’ side – resigned from his party. He will serve out the remaining two years of his term as a member of the European Parliament.
Farage said that after a long, hard referendum campaign, he wants to spend more time “for myself,” adding that “I have done my bit.”
The decision by Farage to leave now, just as Great Britain is reeling from the Brexit results, is very negligent. It’s almost as if he is admitting that he is afraid to stick around and deal with the consequences of leaving the EU. That is not the hallmark of a great leader.
Facing down adversity and failure is definitely part of the job description for leaders. So, too, is holding firm in your post when times get tough. If you cannot survive setbacks, or endure those tough times, then you shouldn’t try to lead others.
This week’s gut check question asks: do you have the courage to lead after you have failed?