Jill Pett: The best leaders know when to change direction

As the interminable Brexit saga drags on with – at least at the time of writing – no landing in sight, it seems that much of the country has already gone past the point of peak interest.

There is only so much arcane British parliamentary process that even the most ardent politicos can digest before people start to lose interest in the whole thing and refocus elsewhere.

What leaders can learn from Brexit

There’s a leadership lesson here. Business leaders often have a pet initiative that they’ve committed to seeing through and in their enthusiasm for it lose sight of whether it continues to make good business sense or is even achievable. While the business initially gets swept along in the CEO’s verve and desire to get ‘it’ done, there can come a tipping point where the business becomes exhausted; people start to disengage because they no longer believe in the project and/or can’t see it being successfully delivered.

At this stage, how a leader responds is critical. Many will mistake a sign of strong leadership as them sticking to a plan, no matter how it is being received: “I must push it through regardless of what I am hearing.” In reality, the opposite is true. The hallmark of an effective CEO is an ability to recognise when something isn’t working and change direction.

CEOs must know how to read a room

To do this of course, the CEO needs two qualities. First it is an ability to ‘read the room’; to know when people are losing faith. They need to be able to spot when people are simply going through the motions with no real belief that the end goal will ever be achieved or is worth the effort.

A humble CEO is a strong CEO

The second quality needed is humility. It takes courage for a CEO to admit – possibly to junior employees – that their idea is not going to work. Not all CEOs find that an easy thing to do, again, mistaking a single-minded stubbornness as a sign of strong leadership when in reality, the reverse is true.

If Brexit does finally reach its endgame and we can all move on, we should assume that, whatever the outcome, businesses must adopt a much more agile strategy to deal with the fast-changing world we all live in. Businesses can only do that if their leaders are prepared to flex when they recognise the path they have chosen is not necessarily the best one and be big enough to admit it.