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The Brexit Wake – First Who, Now What: Can Our Politicians Lead Major Transition?

by Deborah Rowland

As the post Brexit vote dust settles, it is now thankfully clear who will lead the UK nation through its biggest transition in living history. Its new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has tripped gracefully into Number 10 Downing Street. Unafraid of making bold moves, she has upturned the previous cabinet and selected a new team to join her in this major task. Gasps of shock reverberated as she appointed Boris Johnson – the controversial and diplomatically challenged key Leave campaigner – to the post of Foreign Secretary. Not only this she has sacked, among others, his slayer to the top job – Michael Gove. While now open to an accusatory whiff of revenge, I admire this – May seems a leader who can embrace difficulty and diversity. A fresh new team in post is sorely needed.

However, my deepest desire at this most turbulent time is that our politicians embark on this change in ways that will radically shift, not reinforce, existing patterns. Transition is a time when our natural immune system can be fortunately overridden to enable a welcoming, and not a rejection, of all things new. My biggest hope is that the transition to exit the EU and find Britain’s new place in the world will be led in a way that transcends self-interested out-of-touch-with-the-people partisan politics – and be an approach that above all else will unite, not further divide, our fractured nation. My almost three decades of experience and empirical research in the field of change points to one key variable in its success: leadership – and in particular a style of leadership that can acknowledge a whole over the selective attention to its parts. Are our politicians up to it?

I am hopeful. May has entered Number 10 with a promise to address the country’s deep divisions. Her overarching aim is to govern as a “One Nation” Conservative, and build an economy that will work for us all, not just the (well paid corporate) elite. One of the biggest messages from my research is that successful leaders of change implement a change approach that models the desired intent. It’s no use trying to get to a new place by using the exact same methods that got you to the problems of the current one. On that basis, I sincerely hope that May and her new top team spend as much time attending to the how, or process of the Brexit transition, as they do to its what, the major tasks. The transition process needs to look and feel different to what we have experienced in recent years, and be in line with the envisioned (One Nation) future. But breaking routines is hard.

My research points to three ways to sustainably shift habitual patterns. For us, and our future generation’s sake, Mrs. May I hope they are heeded.

#1: be prepared to uncover the deep sources that create today’s reality

It is nigh on impossible to transform our routines unless we are willing to open to (at times painful) depth and truthfully examine the source, or place from which we currently operate. The Brexit vote uncovered a deep, dark underbelly to our politics, and British society, that was not always pleasant to see.

The Labour MP Jo Cox – a passionate Remain campaigner – was murdered a week before the vote, seemingly because of her views on it. Why did she have to die? Will our new political leaders be brave enough to capture and acknowledge the deep lessons from the Referendum’s campaign and confess, for example, how the Leave campaign’s tactics stirred up ugly British nationalistic sentiment?  Can they be systemically skilled enough to call for a major review of the role of the media in perpetuating myths and spreading fear for the campaigns – on both sides of the Brexit divide?

We owe it to Jo, and her family, to do so.

Who will hold up the mirror? If our new nation’s leaders cannot go quickly and bravely to the source of today’s reality, then our repeating patterns will hold new solutions back. This requires a supreme non-judgmental perceiving ability. Could we imagine having an observer role in parliament, and at Cabinet meetings, that would spot and call out dysfunctional divisive patterns, provide feedback, and coach our politicians on how to examine and be open to their true motives and intentions? This would certainly help eradicate (or at least reduce) narcissistic political leadership.

I wish for a more self-aware world that is courageous enough to create spaces for deeper observation and reflection.

#2: operate from a genuine desire to find collaborative solutions

To heal a divided nation, we need unified leadership – across all of Westminster. In my view, the Brexit task has to be well held, collectively, by all of our political parties. Can May, and David Davis — the new minister at the helm of the Brexit programme — ensure that the process is trustfully and collaboratively led? The nation will be sickened if we witness our leaders fighting as they did in the run up to the Brexit vote. Last year I did see a Westminster able to unite when it produced the Mindful Nation report, a truly collaborative effort that transcended political divides to put forward proposals on how to build a healthier, more compassionate, better-educated, and prosperous population.

We certainly need that now. So, how about Davis studying and using that report to model mindfulness in his own Brexit transition process? I suggest he put in place an all-party effort that engages the whole nation — and in particular the younger generation, most of whom voted to Remain in the EU — to co-create and jointly implement the Brexit transition. The healing and transition of a nation is simply too big and systemic a task for one political party, or central Westminster, to do alone – no matter how well intended or experienced its leaders.

Collaboration though, like examining the source of your action, is challenging. The ego is clever in seeking its own reinforcement. But I still dream of a more outward-reaching world that can transcend rigidly partisan, partial solutions.

#3: have the courage to run towards, and not away from difficulty

Successful change leaders are fully alert to the unfolding messiness that is life, and can function adroitly in disturbance. Indeed, difficulty becomes a target marker for creating change in the here-and-now experience as deep change occurs when difficulty is squarely named and faced.

As a Remain voter, I wish that we could have voted to face, and not flee from, the difficulty that is embodied in co-operation across the European Union. Yet, the Brexit vote, viewed systemically, has helpfully revealed many dark shadows: ugly populist nationalism; the local brutality of globalisation; self-serving political narcissism; and an out of touch elite including the hubristic and complacent Brussels EU apparatus. Could we envisage our political leaders having the guts to fess up to their errors, not fearing that this will lead to a victory for their opponents and a decline in voter confidence in the population? Truth, however painful, is appealing. What innovation could May unleash in her Cabinet, and party, if its leaders can now open up to their past divisions, adopt straight talking politics, and engage in the at times humility of learning?

I do long for a braver world in which difficulty is given a more respectful place.

Ultimately, leading major transition requires that we operate from our highest and most conscious self. Let’s not waste the opportunity that the turbulence of the Brexit vote has and will bring. I do so need for this current pain to have had a longer-term purpose. As a Remain voter I can yet be mindful, step above the immediacy of the personal drama, and see a wider intentionality. Be that re-inventing Britain for the better or creating a wake up call for a reformed European Union without us.

But it will require superlative change leadership skills from Theresa May and her new team, and the coming months will be fateful. I will provide commentary throughout – releasing key messages from my forthcoming book, Still Moving: How To Lead Mindful Change (Wiley, 2017).

Deborah Rowland, Notting Hill, July 14th 2016

Photo: © Crown Copyright 2013

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