In Britain, No Turning Back

Theresa May may have employed a bold leadership tactic when she walked away from a big trade option.


It was a move British Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t have to take. But this week, she announced the country would “categorically” not enter a tariff-free trade agreement with the Europe Union. The move, a key step in the Brexit talks, leaves Britain open to—but also now having to look for—new trade partners.

To some, it was an odd step in a critical negotiation. Keeping the EU customs union option on table offered some leverage for now. But experts say walking away smacks of a leadership tactic, in this case essentially forcing her cabinet to leave the EU and succeed on its own.

It’s the sort of move executives make when they feel their success is dependent on the accomplishment of turning around a business, says Kirsta Anderson, global solutions leader for Culture Transformation at Korn Ferry in London. That’s based on a recent study of a number of company transformations. “When that connection to personal success isn’t in place, then a turnaround is risky and intangible, and there are times when it looks like the change won’t happen,” she says.

Though on the drastic side, going all-in can sometimes be the only recourse. For example, Anderson cites one client who was turned down by his CEO for a major budget increase to develop a product. Instead of breaking the bad news to the team, he encouraged them to move forward, and took on the risk himself. “He made his personal success dependent on the success of the turnaround,” Anderson says.

On a grander scale, President John F. Kennedy’s goal in the early 1960s of landing a man on the moon was another all-in move. Kennedy, who wanted the task completed by the end of the decade, used what is now known as a Big Hairy Audacious Goal to motivate the team at NASA. Anderson says that setting such grand goals—and putting public pressure around them—can help shift how an organization operates. “There is an element of coercion here,” she says.

In the case of Theresa May, critics have said her cabinet has stalled on EU talks for too long. Now, Anderson says, May has given them one choice: Follow me. “She had let her cabinet carry on unaligned with her goal until it became clear that they weren’t going to fall in line.”