When the Boss Gets Replaced... and Replaced, and Replaced

A pro-Brexit party votes this week on whether to keep its leader, it’s fourth in 18 months. Is this a case study in an organization losing its purpose?

Two summers ago, the leaders of the pro-Brexit U.K Independence Party, or UKIP, were a jubilant group. Great Britain had chosen to do the one thing the party demanded: break away from the European Union. But the party, having achieved its sole purpose, has gone through four leaders in 18 months and may be looking for a fifth if, on Saturday, party members vote to toss out current boss. The party's chairman says he's resigning after the vote, whatever the outcome. 

It’s another example, experts say, of the power of purpose within an organization. Have it, and organizations can outperform their rivals or achieve otherwise stunning results. Lose it, and the organization can fall apart. “When an organization loses its purpose, then it drifts and turns factious,” says Dominic Schofield, a London-based senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Board & CEO Services practice in London.

Without a clear purpose, employees get demoralized and people leave. Factionalism breaks out, and the company or political party goes to war with itself, says Schofield. In the case of UKIP, the victory in the Brexit referendum left the group with little more to do. “Had the referendum gone the other way, and the country voted to stay in the E.U., they would still be a purposeful organization challenging that direction with the charismatic Nigel Farage still leading.”  

The loss of purpose can happen in the private sector, too. Young tech firms can struggle after launching a fantastic product—all their efforts were put into one piece of software and they struggle to come up with an encore. Legacy manufacturers can also struggle finding a purpose when disruptions in trade and technology upend markets.

When the purpose falters, it’s not surprising that UKIP and other organizations have trouble at the top. Finding the type of leader to help calm an organization and give it direction isn’t easy. “You need to test for strategic mindset,” Schofield says. “Such an individual is more likely to see the bigger picture; they are strategically aware.” 

A leader who steps into a purpose-less organization needs not only to identify the right way to move the organization but also inspire the troops to move that way, says Kirsta Anderson, global solutions leader for Culture Transformation at Korn Ferry. It often means talking to the people in the organization respectfully about the strengths that helped the company achieve its goals in the past, and about how new skills or emphasis are needed to move forward, she explains. It can be done, for every example of an organization that’s lost its way, there’s another of a leader—from Lou Gerstner at IBM to Tony Blair of Britain’s Labour Party—who can reunite an organization and move it successfully forward.