If the UK general election was ‘all about Brexit’ what does the current confusion tell us?

Theresa May, as the facts show, took a lead in the polls to call an unnecessary early election (according to the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 there were three years still to run on this parliament) and was returned to – well, not exactly power... Her approval ratings slumped, her majority gone, and leaning heavily on the support of DUP flat-earthers (and amazingly, that’s not much of an exaggeration), rivals for the top job are making the kind of supportive statements that rivals always trot out, hoping someone else will draw the first blood. But most of the serious commentators agree that the Theresasurus Rex is about to become extinct.

It’s a mess, but I think we all feared it might be. What we need is leadership, and what happens when leadership fails? New leaders take their place.

Look at Trump, whose unlovely presidency is uncrumpling like a crisp packet in a puddle. Unable to control even his own Twitter feed, he stamped his foot and pulled out of the Paris Accord. It hardly matters. He did it to thumb his nose at the other world leaders who laughed at his silly hair. Well, two can play at that game, and now California has thumbed her nose at the President.

So while the UK government moves the deckchairs around and HMQ waits for the ink to dry on her speech (and amazingly, that’s no exaggeration at all) it falls upon the shoulders of businesses to step in and do what needs to be done.

How to cut through this chaos? A clear story. Politicians, despite what you may believe, don’t actually lie as often as they are asked to say ‘yes or no’ to a question that doesn’t have a yes or no answer; but they often take a selective look at whatever figures they find favourable, and deal with verbal ambiguities that don’t pin them down to any particular side. They’re not slippery themselves (with notable exceptions), but they often find it necessary to tell a slippery story, serving more than one master. Look at Jeremy Corbyn: he could’ve rescued a puppy from a burning building during the election campaign, and some sections of the press would’ve hung him out to dry for it.

The advantage that businesses have is that they operate in a free world, can set their own agenda, and be more honest than the politicians. With politicians we want to have our cake and eat it. With businesses, we accept that if we want to have the cake we have to pay for it. We have a much more straightforward and honest relationship with businesses than we do with politicians. Successful companies don’t have constituents, they have customers, and understand what it is that makes those customers loyal (or not). Companies don’t worry about hard/soft Brexit trade negotiations or Keynesian economic models: they are too busy Just Doing It, taking you Where You Want To Go Today, or assuring you that Every Little Helps.

So, as a business leader, it’s straightforward (I never use the word easy, I’m not daft). What’s your story? Boil it down to the shortest articulable phrase that even Donald Trump couldn’t mess up. If your brightest people can’t nail it down, give it to your stupidest people, they have a way of cutting through the nonsense. Whatever you’re selling, sell it. Promise no more, and deliver no less.

How you deliver your promise is the stuff of MBAs and clever middle managers and elegantly structured commissions for your people. But the story buck stops with the person in charge. What’s it all about? You can pay a consultant to come up with a list of tag lines and cutesy logos, but you’re going to have to be the one who picks the final design. You have to be the one who knows what the organisation is all about. You have to tell the story. What you mustn’t do, though, is lie. A story is a narrative, not a series of untruths. When a bully defends themselves saying that their hurtful words were ‘just a joke,’ they misunderstand what a joke is: a joke is a story, and the story has to be true or it doesn’t work. Look at BA: their story is ‘to fly, to serve.’ But the reality is that they are reducing the frequency of in flight meals and outsourcing the computers. Even if they hadn’t had their epic IT meltdown, there would still be the impression that they are charging top end prices for budget airline service. Result: disappointed customers. Budget airline customers, on the other hand, are usually pretty happy, because you pay for what you get: the passengers know they’ll treated like cattle, but what do you expect when you’re flying from Luton to Turkey for £5? The only difference between BA and the budget airline? The story.

What you mustn’t do, though, is lie. A story is a narrative, not a series of untruths. When a bully defends themselves saying that their hurtful words were ‘just a joke,’ they misunderstand what a joke is: a joke is a story, and the story has to be true or it doesn’t work. Look at BA: their story is ‘to fly, to serve.’ But the reality is that they are reducing the frequency of in-flight meals and outsourcing the computers. Even if they hadn’t had their epic IT meltdown, there would still be the impression that they are charging top end prices for budget airline service. Result: disappointed customers. Budget airline customers, on the other hand, are usually pretty happy, because you pay for what you get: the passengers know they’ll be treated like cattle, but what do you expect when you’re flying from Luton to Turkey for £5? The only difference between BA and a budget airline? The story.

If you are running a successful company, it is because your customers know what to expect from you. If your company is faltering, this relationship may be unclear. Fixing the problem may be as simple as revisiting your brand story, and telling it more honestly.

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