As Theresa May steps in as the new Prime Minister of Britain, she will be faced with the daunting task of unifying a divided nation. It’s an unenviable position for any leader; a thankless damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t job. In Theresa May’s case, if she goes through with the Brexit, she will infuriate half the population that thinks that’s a terrible idea and if she decides not to go through with it she will infuriate the other half that won a popular referendum. What is she to do?
This problem is not unique to leaders of nation states. Leaders of industry are also asked to right rudderless ships with divided crews. The CEO of chemical giant DuPont, Ellen Kullman, for example, unexpectedly quit her job in October, 2015 while the company was still going through a controversial split driven by activist investors. She chose to leave when morale and cooperation were low while politicking and self-interests were running high. The new CEO, Edward Breen, like Theresa May, must now unify a fractured organization in which fear and uncertainty are more common than trust and inspiration.
Any leader of an organization that is going through upheaval, huge losses, scandal, merger, split, protracted hard times, low engagement, low cooperation or strained trust should take note.
Almost everyone knows the importance of vision for a leader. The problem is most leaders don’t properly articulate a vision. “Unity,” “growth,” or “a brighter future” are not visions. Nor is some financial target to be delivered by the year 2020. The latter is a goal, the former is nothing more than abstract pabulum. Nice words, for sure, but it is not vision and it will not inspire action.
A true vision paints a clear picture of what the world could look like if everything goes perfectly. It is an ideal. And for it to inspire people to act, that vision has to describe a world that would benefit an outside population. It is not simply a reflection of a company’s aspirations (“to be the biggest,” “the best” or “the most respected,” for example).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described his vision in words so clear, the rest of us could imagine exactly what it could like in the world of which he dreamed. A world in which, one day, little black children will hold hands on the playground with little white children. The Civil Rights movement was the path we would take to reach that vision. It was a vision for the people.
Steve Jobs talked about The Revolution, a time in which individuals would have the power to stand up to The Corporation. The personal computer was the tool to advance towards that vision. It was a vision for the people.
Too many leaders think the plan is more important than the vision. The reality however, is the complete opposite. A plan is uncertain, changeable and sometimes flawed. It is the vision that must be immovable, fixed and inspiring. Remember, Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream,” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.
As the new CEO of Britain, Theresa May has an opportunity to deliver a clear vision for the U.K. One that has been lacking for years. A vision not for one group or the other – for all Britons. And she needs to do it quickly in order to earn the trust from the people on both sides of the divide.
2. Ask the people to contribute
Once the vision is clear, an effective leader asks those who believe to find ways to help advance towards that vision. Weak are the leaders who promise to carry the people, carry the company or carry a nation. And the reason is simple. It’s a promise they can’t keep. Executives and governments aren’t strong enough to advance entire cultures. Their responsibility is to remind us where we are heading, clear a path, find the resources and support all of those who have committed to help advance the vision. It is the front lines that do the heavy lifting. And that’s a good thing. It gives everyone a feeling they are contributing to something larger than themselves.
When our leaders fail to invite the people to join (and they will only join if the vision is clear and inspiring), then the people will cross their arms and wait for the leaders to “fix” everything. A sure recipe for failure and discontent. When, in contrast, our leaders ask for our help, we become the entrepreneurs, innovators and keepers of the vision. This in turn lays a strong foundation for work to advance beyond any leader’s tenure.
It is we who put a man on the moon and brought him back safely. It is we who pushed back Hitler’s advance. It is we who invent the products that define innovative companies. It is the people of the UK, and only the people of the UK, who can rally around a nation and find the way forward. Our leaders are supposed to support us and stay out of our way. All we want is the chance to contribute to something we believe in. Give the people their chance.
3. Listen to the meaning not the words
When the people demand something it doesn’t mean leaders are supposed to give it to them. What good leaders do is work to understand the reason why the people are asking for what they are asking for. The Brexit vote is a perfect example. Too many of the people who voted for Britain to leave the EU weren’t actually voting for the Brexit (the number of Google searches after the vote for “what is the EU” is a clue). What people were voicing was a feeling of being forgotten. They were expressing insecurity for their futures. They were voicing a frustration with income inequality. This was a populist message expressing uncertainty for a future for which their leaders were offering no vision. The problem is, a few politically motivated politicians opted to rally people against something. Which is a lot easier…but careful what you wish for.
We saw the same thing happened in Egypt. We saw a population come together against Hosni Mubarak. But no one was actually leading the uprising. There was little to no single vision for what they were marching towards (of which Mubarak was in their way). With Mubarak out – still no unifying vision exists to bring the people together. It’s now more of the same as before. The same is happening in America. Americans are more open and accepting of outsiders than some of our politicians would have us believe. What many American’s feel these days, expressed as xenophobia, is fear, uncertainty and frustration for their own futures. That’s the real problem that must be addressed.
Theresa May must offer programs to help her people feel safe and secure in their jobs and their futures. Kneejerk reactions against something may make us feel like we won something…but that’s only until we are left with the daunting task of trying to figure out what’s next.
4. Consider This Your Last Job
When a politician is motivated to get themselves re-elected, we can tell. When an executive acts to protect their own bonus, we can tell. When a colleague works to advance their own career at the expense of ours, we can tell. And when any leader sees their contribution to us and the vision as primary, even if it costs them an election, a bonus or a promotion – then and only then will that leader have the people.
This, sadly, is one of the hardest things for leaders to do. Especially when money, power and fame enter the picture. It’s hard for a CEO to put their people first when the compensation models often reward them for putting their people second (if that). Great leaders would sooner sacrifice their interests to protect the lives of their people and would never sacrifice their people to protect their interests.
We are constantly judging the words and actions of our leaders to form a picture – trying to discern if they are acting selflessly or selfishly. If we believe they are acting with our interests in mind, trust and cooperation thrive. If we believe they are more concerned with their careers, paychecks or glory over our wellbeing, cynicism, paranoia, mistrust and self-interest prevail.
In contrast, when we are certain that our leaders are devoted to single, unwavering vision, when we see that they are working to give us the tools we need to contribute to that vision, when we feel they understand our real needs (which may not be the same as the demands we voice), we will gladly offer our blood and sweat and tears to advance the vision. The leaders set the tone.
If Theresa May, or any other leader, wants to get anything good done in the world, she’s going to need the people. She will need to devote all her energy to serve her people, not react to loud voices. And if she does what needs to be done, it may cost her her career. And that’s exactly the kind of leader the people of Britain need right now.