Brexit and my grandson: A strategic lesson for business leaders

In the summer of 2016, my grandson was transforming his sense of self and his experience of purposeful fun with the help of professional soccer coaches. They awesomely demonstrated how to embrace the human potential of their 10-year old players. The kids would come off the field in the “My Weaker Foot” Camp physically exhausted and spiritually so invigorated that they smiled in their sleepy stupors all the way home. It became so clear they loved the connection to their growing selves, their teammates, their coaches, and the game! These coaches recognized, acknowledged, and reinforced core human potential. They did so by employing a distinct strategy for getting the most out of everyone and bringing caring and loving leadership to the job, and the Camp of Life.

Imagine if business leaders brought this same level of strategic brilliance to their organization. Imagine the engagement of employees and stakeholders. Can you imagine the organizational effectiveness?

Brexit was the antithesis of this. Great strategists see trends before others do, and visionary leaders prepare before a movement overtakes them. Brexit back in 2016 was the manifestation of a populous trend that political leadership ignored, then underestimated, and then failed to plan for with success. Most leaders — political and business — are not great strategists. A study by PwC found that just 8% of business leaders had the right competencies to be transformational “strategists” and effective agents for change. That’s problematic.

Brexit is a reflection of disillusioned and disengaged people fed up with decades of being disregarded. In the US in 2015, support for Trump and Sanders was, in large part, the result of the same phenomenon. For generations, people have watched as leadership talk has not matched the walk, transformational change has been trumped up, and trickle-down economics has been exposed as a costly myth. Over time, the disappointment grew to despair, distrust, and disengagement. Leaders did not correctly address this slow, invidious decline. Poor leadership has become a crucible for revolt. And yet, there has always been a better way.

Brexit in the public sector remains a harbinger for a strategic problem in the private sector. The lesson I am speaking about is less visible than a democratic uprising, but nonetheless real. It is embedded in the culture and the air we breathe. It’s a disaffection with authority that favors itself disproportionately over employees, customers, business partners, and the environment. The dissatisfaction with authority brings disengagement and underminings loyalty. It’s a malignancy that every business leader needs to recognize, sooner versus later. As they say in Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming …” and we’re running out of time.

In the US, according to Gallup research, over one hundred million employees (70%) “vote” with their hearts and feet about their dissatisfaction with over-rated business leadership and the ambient disregard and disrespect. They disengage from their work and end up not giving a damn about their company. Because they know — like Brexit “Leave” voters — that leadership in an arrogant C-Suite does not have a comprehensive, transformational business strategy that will make all stakeholders’ lives better. Add to this that Brexit “Leave” leaders do not have an effective strategy, and you have no hope of transforming anything.

Research by Deloitte in 2015 showed 79% of leaders stated “employee engagement was the number one problem,” and yet, more than two-thirds of US employees are disengaged from their companies. It’s a leadership disconnect that’s as wide and deep as the English Channel. Although CEOs have acknowledged the problem, most have failed to improve the numbers. In 1996, a Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey of CEOs found that leaders placed employee engagement in their top-five priorities. Sounds good. Except for twenty years later, 8 out of 10 senior executives still state it is a top problem — and over half say their organization is not ready to address disengagement.

Only transformational leaders with a profoundly human strategy have any chance of transforming their organizational culture. And yet, consider the opportunity this presents for the rare company blessed with real leadership of people and a transformational strategy focused on human brilliance. Imagine the company that effectively deploys human potential strategies to sustain engagement and release human brilliance across the organization. Imagine the performance levels. Imagine the competitive advantage.

My grandson can’t tell you why he feels so deeply respected. Yet he brings it! He may not know why his coaches are so extraordinarily insightful about him and why he feels compelled to do more, do better, do what previously seemed “impossible.” Yet he brings it! The potential is within us all — player and leader alike — and all it takes is a quantum shift to a transformational strategy rooted in human potential.