Brexit: 5 Ways In Which David Cameron Failed Spectacularly As A Leader

01/07/2016 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Pascal Rossignol / Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron arrives at the EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 28, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

These past few days, following the Brexit referendum, have seen disturbing trends that range from utter confusion on what the immediate and long-term implications are, to prophecies of economic turbulence, to unabashed fury at the British decision and, worse, instances of xenophobic statements and racist attacks in the UK and across Europe. Is this the beginning of the end, many have been tempted to ask, for Europe or even the UK, as we know them?

Recent commentaries, however, suggest that Brexit might simply not happen. This is because the referendum is only advisory in capacity and not a legally binding decision on the UK. In other words, as per the British Constitution, Parliament has to vote on a Bill that allows the UK to leave the EU and that is not likely to happen. Without passage of the Bill, the UK would not be able to notify EU in writing of its desire to leave and thus, invoke Article 50 of the EU and commence proceedings for a formal exit.

Even if this is the way things finally turn out, perceptions matter and in the eyes of most people -- in Europe and elsewhere, including the UK -- the entire referendum exercise has been undertaken with a half-hearted approach, reflecting the near-indifference with which the UK has looked at its relationship with Europe.

Cameron forgot the basic adage that great leaders don't strive for greatness.

What is demonstrably unambiguous is the angst directed against David Cameron for his hasty decision in calling the referendum. His extraordinary inability to read the electorate is seen as a blunder that will cost both the UK and Europe dear. In short, it was a significant leadership failure, principally for the following reasons:


Genuine leaders are acutely conscious of the power of the "why" power in successful decision-making. It is not what you do or how you do it but why you do it. Without "why", decisions are reduced to mechanical actions. They lack soul. Without soul or depth, passion and commitment are taken out of the equation. "Why" defines identity: it tells the outside world what you stand for. It rallies people around you.

Knowing "why" doesn't just happen. It entails a process of deep introspection and critical analysis that removes doubt and hesitation and, consequently, allows for focus. It is only when the "why" is imbed with conviction and is recognized as the supreme objective that passionate engagement follows. Cameron lacked this commitment. As a leader, this is clearly unacceptable.


Cameron wanted to emulate his Labour predecessor Harold Wilson, who had also called a referendum in 1975. Cameron too wanted to go down in British and EU history as the man who won the referendum for the UK to remain in Europe. Consequently, he forgot the basic adage that great leaders don't strive for greatness. It is their actions that history records as being exceptional and transformative. He allowed his ego to come in the way of what was the right thing to do for the UK and for Europe. In the process, he sacrificed the welfare of the UK and Europe. Leaders do the right thing. He did not.

Cameron failed to unite even his own party on the issue. Without teamwork, objectives cannot be realized.


For a referendum of such gravitas, Cameron -- as Prime Minister of the UK -- ought to have been the statesman and reached across party lines, through a campaign that united. Instead, tragically, this is likely to go down as one of the most polarizing and divisive campaigns in British history, which even saw a sitting MP killed. But, more substantively, Cameron failed to unite even his own party on the issue. Without teamwork, objectives cannot be realized. Further, teams that deliver are those which share the commitment and passion of the leader. The onus is on the leader to transmit his vision. This is the basic lesson all leaders are aware of.


Successful interventions require a three-stage approach: first, you need to be convinced of the "why" with regard to what you are contemplating doing, next you identify what you need to do to achieve this, and finally, you determine strategy -- the "how" -- based on detailed background assessments.. Strategy follows only after there is clarity on objective and intervention. Since Cameron didn't know the "why", he failed to determine the "what" and the "how". Consequently, the entire campaign floundered.

At the same time, referendums are about choice and Cameron got the timing all wrong. Timing is, in fact, a crucial element of strategy.


Leadership requires anticipating the consequences of failure and preparing for them. For this, a clear roadmap on "next steps" to avoid volatile speculation must be made. Cameron failed to do this. There was, in fact, no Plan B, which is why there is no clarity on how the UK will now proceed. This is actually quite astonishing because some polls had clearly indicated that the results would point towards an exit.

Leadership requires anticipating the consequences of failure and preparing for them. Cameron failed to do this. There was, in fact, no Plan B...

There is no charitable explanation for what Cameron "achieved". The confusion it triggered, along-with the credible anxiety that attacks on migrants could be unleashed and Europe might well become a fortress it hoped it would not be, rests on his failed leadership. There is worry that if Brexit triggers calls for another major Continental country to also seek exit from the EU, the very idea of the European Union could wither away.

It is perhaps an extraordinary twist of fate that the country whose actions during the two world wars led to the creation of the EU is the one sober voice in this challenging time. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, knows how important it is to hold Europe together, especially now. The role she plays and the leadership she provides could be the game-changer.

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