Business after Brexit: four leadership lessons for uncertain times from military and sporting heroes

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The tumultuous trading environment that Brexit has created means strong leadership is more important than ever before. Business leaders should look to the worlds of sport and the military for lessons on how to keep a level head in times of uncertainty.

It is a difficult time to be a business leader and, as Brexit uncertainty amplifies, businesses that rely on the EU for supplies and trade are being tested like never before. These fundamental challenges call for leaders who are capable of withstanding intense pressure.

Now is not the time to dither, but instead focus on showing courage, clarity, action and most importantly, leadership.

For lessons in leadership you could do no better than look to the military or elite sport, both of which operate in environments of intense pressure, constant uncertainty and, in the case of the military, life or death situations.  

In professional sport, international football and rugby teams operate in environments where some people think the outcome is even more important. (The most famous example being Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly, who said, “some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.)

The pressure is powerful enough to unnerve even the most experienced players, as I have learned from personal experience. Mental preparation is key to success.

Performing under pressure

Back in 2002, when I was privileged enough to be included in the England cricket squad tour of India, my game collapsed in front of 120,000 people while I was up against batting legend Sachin Tendulkar.

The crowd roared as the pressure built up inside me that day, I couldn’t hear a thing and I ran Freddie Flintoff out. Right there and then I felt I wasn’t good enough to be there.

It was only later when I started exploring psychology that I understood it wasn’t India that beat me that day, but my own mindset.

This started my research to find out what neuroscientists, military leaders, and Olympians could teach us all about performing under pressure.

In the last decade I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most impressive and prolific leaders, from Sir Alex Ferguson, to military generals and even the performance director at the Cirque du Soleil, to understand what tactics and strategies they use to mentally prepare for uncertainty.

In doing so I have distilled the secrets of their success into a digital library that helps my clients to maintain a winning mindset when they need it most.

Below are some essential tactics to help you cope with chronic uncertainty.

1. Stop blaming others - own the situation

With our current Brexit situation there are plenty of people your management team might feel like blaming – the electorate, former Prime Minister David Cameron, the EU, MPs in Westminster, or our current Prime Minister.  

Post-Brexit, however, there will be another fundamental problem in its place. You can’t continue to blame others for everything that is wrong in the world. You need to get over it.  

In the world of sport, we see elite coaches stepping up when things have gone wrong, not making excuses.

Uncertainty creates opportunity, so start by owning the situation and making a plan that turns the uncertainty into an advantage. 

Ireland Rugby coach Joe Schmidt didn’t hide after his team was beaten by Wales in the final Six Nations match in February.

It later turned out some of the squad had been hit by a stomach bug in the run up to match, but that wasn’t an excuse for poor play, said Schmidt. They were simply beaten by a better team and would need to work out a strategy for the World Cup in Japan.

As Schmidt is shows, great leaders don’t waste time blaming others. It may win you sympathy, but it won’t help you solve the problems.

Uncertainty creates opportunity, so start by owning the situation and making a plan that turns the uncertainty into an advantage.  

After all, other businesses have the same problems so those that actively tackle the situation will be the ones that succeed.  

2. Pressure is a privilege  

Having played in and worked with some of the world’s highest profile sporting teams, I’ve seen how they use pressure as privilege and use this mindset to tackle potential issues head on.

Worrying about what might or could happen leads to paralysis, so an effective leader must embrace the challenges ahead.

In the military, the best leaders prepare their teams for plan A, but they also throw scenarios into the training that get the teams thinking on their feet.

Rapidly changing situations call for leaders who can bring together diverse people to fix problems and exploit opportunities, fast.

I’ve supported several senior leadership sessions at Sandhurst military academy and heard how they create challenging and chaotic scenarios to test the soldiers’ ability to think clearly and adapt under pressure.

In a business context, this could mean equipping teams with the skills to make decisions under extreme pressure and rehearsing with scenarios.  

By pressure testing various challenges, you will be more familiar with the decision-making sequence that follows when chaos ensues. What if vital parts for your biggest customer were stopped at the border? What would you do?

3. Don’t micromanage – enable

An effective leader needs to have confidence in their team so that they are empowered to make crucial decisions when needed.

This may sound good on paper, but what does that mean in practice? Making sure that vital employees are given the right training is essential for building confidence in them.

Equipped with the right skills and level of autonomy, team members will feel empowered to make decisions, and this could be the difference between you and your competitors, who might dally without making business choices.

4. Be fluid not fixed 

Rapidly changing situations call for leaders who can bring together diverse people to fix problems and exploit opportunities, fast.

Leaders must understand that they can’t predict and prevent all problems from arising. Instead, they must prepare employees so they can assess and respond quickly.

Understanding your biggest business threats, whether it’s Brexit or environmental issues, and how your business will respond if they become reality is important to be able to withstand the pressure that comes from uncertainty.

Confidence comes from preparation, so plan for the unexpected and turn disruption to a commercial advantage.

Very few will have the perfect strategy to deal with the political uncertainty in coming weeks and months, but those who maximise their mindset and culture will have the best chance of winning, whatever the position.

Interested in this topic? Read What can we learn from military leadership about motivating people?

About Jeremy Snape

Jeremy Snape

Sporting Edge is a high-performance consultancy that unlocks the Winning Mindset in business. Founded in 2005 by former England Cricketer Jeremy Snape, our unique approach to corporate learning helps businesses to stay ahead of the game.

This innovative approach is powered by our digital library of over 750 bite-sized interview insights from elite coaches, neuroscientists and experts in strategy and communication. Thousands of executives around the world have on demand access to these success strategies. By fusing these exclusive video insights with practical tools from performance psychology we deliver fresh thinking and improved results to our ambitious clients.

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