Brexit signals a leadership crisis for executives as well as politicians. A forgotten management thinker can help business leaders to restore trust by sharing power.

While Brexit brings uncertainty for business, executives may be more worried about the effect of the political crisis on their careers. “Strong and stable” leadership doesn’t work any more. Management pioneer Mary Parker Follett offers a solution: instead of taking power over people, leaders can learn to use power with their teams.

It’s no secret that executives are worried about Brexit: bank bosses say that staff could be forced to leave; AstraZeneca’s CEO refuses to support the UK’s negotiating strategy; and Sainsbury’s warns about food rotting at the border. While these are real concerns, I sense a deeper disquiet, related to the leadership crisis that The Economist calls “chaos at the heart of government”. We’re witnessing the collapse of neoliberalism, the decades-old ideological project that sees competition and markets as solutions to all social problems. Brexit is part of a series of events that signal this collapse: the rise of neofascism in Donald Trump; Theresa May’s disastrous “strong and stable” election campaign; and the Grenfell Tower fire, which showed how thousands are trapped in poverty while the homes of the super-rich lie empty nearby. Business isn’t immune: Deloitte’s CEO points to a “wake up call for business leaders”. It’s high time that executives acknowledge that their way of working—a thinly veiled version of benevolent dictatorship—can’t address today’s challenges.

Business is in crisis. Productivity is stagnant even as people work longer hours. According to a survey by Gallup, just 17% of UK workers are engaged at work, with 57% not engaged and 26% actively disengaged. Workplace stress and burnout are at epidemic levels. That undermines trust, which means innovation won’t happen. According to a survey by KPMG, over 70% of CEOs say they’re “placing greater importance on trust, values and culture in order to sustain their future”, and 80% of UK CEOs have attended a course in the last year to help them meet the challenges of their role. But aspiration and training aren’t enough.

We need a new type of business leader. Consider the status quo, which I call nice domination, epitomised by Barack Obama. He appropriated the trappings of radical movements while running a neoliberal administration. For example, he coopted the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., even imitating his rhetorical style, while rejecting King’s core value: nonviolence. Obama bombed 7 majority-Muslim countries, did nothing to reverse mass incarceration, and as the first black president needed to be reminded that Black Lives Matter.

Business leaders follow the “nice domination” playbook, invoking progressive values while their organisations profit at the expense of people, communities, and the planet. For example, in 2015 the new CEO of Barclays pledged to transform it into “a values-driven organisation which conducts itself with integrity”; this year the board reported him to regulators after he broke company policy by trying to identify an anonymous whistleblower. Or consider Volkswagen, which promoted its diesel cars as environmentally friendly while cheating government emissions tests, exceeding legal pollution limits by a factor of 40. Several other carmakers ran similar schemes. This isn’t isolated behaviour, it’s a systemic problem, which is why most Corporate Social Responsibility programmes actually uphold the unsustainable practices they claim to reduce.

What’s the alternative to nice domination? The answer might come from Mary Parker Follett (1868–1933), a major contributor to modern business thinking who management guru Peter Drucker called “the prophet of management”. She saw leadership as the ability to develop and integrate group ideas. According to Drucker, Follett’s work was forgotten not because of her gender but because her ideas were too radical. Perhaps her time has come.

Follett invited managers to consider the optimal conditions for group working. She argued that employees are more motivated when they participate in the decisions that affect their work:

“Part of the task of the leader is to make others participate in his leadership. The best leader knows how to make his followers actually feel power themselves, not merely acknowledge his power. But… it is also true that we must have followership on the part of leaders. The basis of industrial leadership is creating a partnership in a common task, a joint responsibility.”—Dynamic Administration (published posthumously in 1941)

The key to creating this partnership is the way the team handles their differences. Follett outlined three options:

  1. domination: one side gets what it wants
  2. compromise: neither side gets what it wants
  3. integration: we find a way that works for both sides

Under compromise, there may be an equality of losing out—everyone gives up something—but people don’t buy into the solution. Halfway between what I want and what you want is neither of our needs getting met. The key to creating outcomes that work for everyone is to find willingness to stretch towards solutions that serve the whole. An imperfect solution that everyone buys into will be more effective for all than either a compromise or any individual’s preference. This is Follett’s conception of integration, which allows groups to transcend either-or dynamics through a creative process, “the finding of the third way”.

Follett’s work has direct relevance to today’s concerns. For example, she suggested that railway managers involve workers in decision-making instead of presenting them with final decisions. If Southern rail had followed her advice before making decisions about new trains, it may never have triggered the worst industrial action in the rail industry for 23 years. This dispute is a classic either-or: efficiency vs. safety. True resolution can only come from integration of both perspectives: the guards’ need for a meaningful role in ensuring safety and the managers’ need for efficiency. All parties need to find willingness to stretch towards a new solution, a “third way”.

Follett’s methods offer leaders a way out from paying lip service to collaboration. Instead they can choose to engage their teams in a creative process that enables joint control among everyone involved in the work. Brexit heralds a leadership crisis that goes deeper than normal business risk. How our business leaders—both established and new—choose to respond will affect the lives of millions.

Jonathan Kahn is a facilitator who supports groups to find breakthrough solutions that stakeholders buy into. He also trains leaders in shared power approaches. #dareconf, the leadership conference comes to London on 9-10 October 2017.