A Divided Nation, A Divided World – A Wake Up Call For Leadership

Brexit and Leadership

by Deborah Rowland

I woke this morning to a seismic shock. The British people voted by 51.9% to leave the European Union. It has sent the City – and global markets – into free-fall. £200bn has just been wiped off the UK stock market in 15 minutes. I voted to Remain, as I believe in reaching outward not inward, in collaboration and inclusion, not isolation and exclusion. I am grieving. For union with all of my continental European friends, who wished us to remain. I feel saddened and ashamed. My main residence is in London, in Kensington, that voted 70% to remain. I sit here at my second home in Cornwall, which voted 60% to leave. Dare I show my face here? Can I smile and be friendly with my neighbours, most of whom voted Leave?

I feel I can. And this is why. Our top leaders – both in politics and business, singularly failed to tune into and engage with the ‘ground’, the felt local pain of (primarily) English communities, who could not get their children into local schools, who faced long hospital waits, who could not get to see their local GP doctor as and when they needed. Because of the pressure on the UK system as a result of immigration. When you have local pain, global issues don’t matter. Who cares about the top CEO’s email to their staff pleading for them to vote Remain, when you cannot get your child into a decent local school? Why should we listen to the Governor of the Bank of England (and many other financial “experts”) voicing economic uncertainty, when increasing EU regulation is strangling your small business?

We could see this as careless voters scoring an own goal. Or, we can see this as a snub to an out of touch establishment, a defiance of the elite who, while claiming to act in the best interests of the country, were singularly out of touch with their own country. This left a space – for the Leave campaigners to stir up gross populist sentiment, which leaves me feeling sick. Yet the Remain campaign was based on fear – what if they could have campaigned on tuning into the electorate and listened to the youth of the UK of whom 70% voted to Remain? They could have campaigned more strongly on our next generation’s future. They did not. And they, and we, have now paid the price.

Out of all of this mess, I see hope. And that is for our top leaders in big business and big politics to learn a big lesson. And that is, to tune into the ground, to come out of the elite ivory towers, and inspire us all to work for a common and greater good. This includes the EU itself in Brussels. This is, for sure, not just a UK issue. Far from decrying the UK’s nationalist sentiment, I hope the Brussels politicians can now look at themselves and their expenses and top-heavy institutions and look into the mirror at how they too have in some way created these outcomes.

And that is why I will now go into my local pub here in Portloe, for the post Referendum brunch, and say “thank you” to all of my neighbours here who voted Leave. I sincerely hope we can turn this major upset into a deep leadership learning for our times.

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