Lessons in leadership from Boaty McBoatface and Brexit


Two current upsets in the UK offer a strong lesson on why leaders should think twice before resorting to ad hoc democracy.

The first exhibit is the Natural Environment Research Council, which decided in a moment of democratic delirium to ask the entire population of the UK to vote a name for their new £200m polar Royal Research Ship (RSS).

The Council fondly imagined that the land of Shakespeare and Churchill would come up with something stirring and inspirational. What it ended up with was RSS Boaty McBoatface, a suggestion which surfed to victory on a viral wave of online approval, handsomely beating RSS It’s Bloody Cold Here and many other names, both serious and roguish. The Council, seeing its dignity floating away on a populist tide, refused to honour the vote result and named the ship after a TV naturalist instead.

Quizzed by a committee of sniggering MPs, the Council’s chief executive protested that the vote meant his organisation was now “the best known research council in the world”. I agree, but would suggest that it is famous because it is now a global laughing stock. The Council’s decision to dabble in democracy ended up with an entirely unintended outcome.

The second example of unintended consequences arising from ad hoc democracy is ‘Brexit’, the shorthand term for the UK’s upcoming referendum on whether to leave the EU [28 June update from Dan: As predicted, this unnecessary dabble in democracy turned into a disaster for the now-defeated Prime Minister]. The UK premier, David Cameron, promised the referendum in the hope that it would benefit his party by quieting its turbulent Eurosceptic wing (it didn’t) and to outflank its right-wing competitor, the UK Independence Party (it hasn’t).
As I write, pollsters say the referendum is hanging on a knife-edge; Cameron, who is now desperately trying to prevent an exit, has created a situation which, according to his own Treasury, could end up throwing the UK into a decade-long economic crisis. Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’ respected chief economics commentator, last week called the referendum “the most irresponsible act by a British government in my lifetime”.

Whichever way the vote goes, Cameron will surely go down in history as one of the UK’s most reckless leaders – an epithet that I really doubt he anticipated when he came up with the notion of the referendum.

What can business leaders learn from these two episodes? Few businesses have formal democratic systems that allow employees to vote on strategy, and even those that invite workers onto the board (mainly in European firms) usually ensure that management is able to push through any policy it likes.

And that’s because, unless your business is a co-operative, the workforce is not the electorate in capitalism; business leaders are ultimately answerable to the shareholders, not the workforce. However, in these inclusive times, many in leadership positions may be tempted to engage in consultations with the workforce, or stage votes with more significance than just deciding what the company uniform should look like. Maybe you want to ask the staff if they’d like to have the option of stand-up desks, or vote on a new company logo. Perhaps you’re tempted to ask members of a team to choose their own manager.

Don’t rush into this; ask yourself some hard questions before you do this:

  • If you put things to a vote, are you prepared to accept the outcome gracefully?
  • Are there any potential outcomes that could clearly harm the organisation’s business or image?
  • If you are contemplating a consultation, are you genuinely looking for useful feedback that will affect the final outcome, or is your ‘consultation’ actually no more than an empty gesture?
  • Are you really trying to dodge responsibility for taking a hard decision that your position (and remuneration) requires you to shoulder alone?

If you hesitate over any of these questions, there are steps you can take to ensure that your proposed initiative is less risky: one example would be to remove randomness by pre-qualifying a set of acceptable options; another option would be to make the vote or consultation either private, or allow people to submit their vote or thoughts anonymously; or make it clear that the vote or consultation is just indicative, not prescriptive.

In all cases where organisations want their employees to feed into the decision-making process it is absolutely critical that everyone appreciates the importance of those decisions, and understands the consequences of the various options – they need to know why the exercise is happening, and the likely upsides and downsides of each of the choices in front of them.

And remember – if in doubt, don’t do it. Your business is not a democracy; you are in charge, and making decisions is the essence of your job; and you are ultimately responsible. If you’re going to dabble in democracy, know exactly why you’re doing it.

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