We are slap-bang in the middle of ‘interesting times’. Leaders and potential leaders face monumental challenges, but also great opportunities. I’m referring not only to the political leaders caught in a whirligig of ‘What just happened?’ and a rollercoaster of ‘Who’s in control?’, but also to the business leaders as Brexit throws a firestarter of uncertainty into the tinderbox of our already VUCA world. At times of change and when the future path is less clear, people need confidence and clarity. They need it from the corporate world as well as their politicians.
So it was with dismay today that I saw a debate breaking out on the Facebook page of a friend of mine. He is a senior European Leader of a global multinational. His calm, considered comment on his personal disappointment over Brexit had provoked a response from one fellow businessman urging him not to publicly comment ‘because his staff, particularly some older ones, might disagree with him’.
I think this is wrong. Now, more than ever, we live in a world where corporate leaders must speak up for what they believe in.
We need leaders with heart and conscience to lead business; those people have to speak out and speak up.
Many people are cynical about businesspeople (almost as much as about politicians). If the corporate world muzzles leaders in companies who have a purpose; if leaders are too scared to speak out because some people will disagree with them, then that is a tragedy which will lead to even more disillusionment. We operate in a much more transparent world now. Organisation brands are built from inside out and customers and communities want to see in and see the truth. Leaders must be authentic and be guided by what they believe is right.
That means speaking up, even when they might find disagreement. People need guidance and like opinion and they expect smart business leaders to provide it. I’ve enjoyed Richard Branson’s eloquence during the Referendum, and Karren Brady’s thoughtful approach, among others.
We have a duty to share and communicate our voices. It’s easier and faster than ever to do so via social media. As long as we avoid it being ‘anti-social’ media; I do not enjoy the violence surrounding the debate. I want a world where we can debate things smartly and with respect.
I voted Remain. As someone who’d spent a lot of time working and living in different parts of Europe, with a business and clients across Europe, as an historian who’d studied European division and as someone who read widely about the subject, I chose to side with the overwhelming economic and political expertise. It seemed the right choice to me last week and still does now. Of course I know people who don’t agree with me, people who I like or respect. I know full well that it is a complicated issue. Some of my clients and potential business partners have a different perspective, so of course it’s vaguely tempting to keep quiet, for fear of damaging a profitable relationship. But we know the strongest brands are built on credibility, authenticity and trust; and the same is true for the relationships between people.
So now is precisely the right time to speak up, to share with others what you believe. It is also the time to think smartly and quickly about how to lead the business world forward. The reality is we are operating in a fast-moving context where change and disruption is actually the only certainty. Those who lead businesses cannot know for sure what will hit their business next whether it’s a political situation, a natural disaster or a fast-growing tech disruptor popping up from left field to eat their breakfast. Brexit is just such a disruptor, we should not be bashful in talking about it.
Leaders must have courage; the courage to nimbly navigate the uncertainty and the courage to speak up and show their employees, their peers and their partners that they are human and that they care.
Now more than ever, we must unite as businesses to work through the best next steps to do the right thing for this country, the people we employ and the world with which we trade. We can only do that with open dialogue and respectful debate. The last few days have been sobering and given everyone much pause for thought. Whether you think the votes and voices of others revealed Pride and Prejudice (or Sense and Sensibility), this is only the opening chapter of a long and important story. Each of us should have the courage to drive forward a future we believe in, to talk openly about that belief, debate it and then decide how we can work together to create a world that is better for us all.
Sophie Devonshire is the CEO at The Caffeine Partnership and an experienced business leader, entrepreneur & brand specialist who works with senior leaders to grow businesses at pace and with a clear sense of purpose.