Brexit: Dealing With Dramatic Defeat

As this week’s events show, leaders face a special challenge moving past enormous defeats





There’s defeat, and then there’s crushing defeat. 

UK Prime Minister Theresa May suffered the latter Tuesday evening after losing a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal 432 to 202. The United Kingdom’s national broadcasting organization BBC calls it “the largest defeat for a sitting government in history.” 

And while she later survived a vote of no confidence that kept her in office, the back-and-forth drama raises a question over that many executives will face in business: when is it time to throw in the towel—in her case, on resolving Brexit?

The first inclination for most leaders should be to carry on pursuing their goals, even in the face of adversity. “There are times when success is just around the corner,” says Mary Macleod, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of the firm’s Government and Public Enterprise practice in London. That means that if you believe in your strategic vision and the value that it can bring to an organization, then keep pursuing it.

Of course, dogged pursuit of a goal doesn’t mean being blind to your situation. “In business, this means listening to feedback and really understanding any concern raised,” and then using that information to figure out a different path to succeed in achieving the desired result, says Macleod. That might mean seeking help from other people in the organization. “When the going does get tough, then the question is, who else can I influence to make things happen?”

There will be times when it’s right to put a project to the side, but ego can sometimes get in the way. Part of that is because the culture of business and leadership frowns on anything other than complete victory. “Throwing in the towel implies giving up, lack of persistence, lack of resilience,” says Mike Stanford, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in Zurich and leader of the firm’s Transformational Leadership practice. “We culturally ask execs to be the opposite: resilient, persistent, tough, determined.”

The way out of that is to reframe the question to something more helpful to the leader that is “purpose driven.” “The question then is: how can we best serve our higher purpose if this path we are pursuing doesn’t work? What’s a purpose-driven plan B?” says Stanford. Or put simply, how can an executive pursue his or her vision through a different route? Such an approach may require some creative thinking. For instance, if the goal is to pull an organization into the digital age, then maybe that can be achieved in smaller increments.

There will, of course, be times when it makes sense to walk away from the company. That may come when, despite your best efforts, top management simply isn’t interested in the vision you have pursued. “If the business doesn’t want to know it, that poses a different question: do you stay with that organization?” says Rob Wilkes, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the global account leader for Financial Services.

Such decisions can be emotionally hard. But having an executive coach, either from inside or outside the organization, can help guide leaders through such dilemmas, Wilkes says. “Having coaches is never a bad thing in your life,” he says.