British Prime Minister Theresa May is proof that everyone who aspires to be in a leadership role should be careful of what they wish for.
As I reflect on her experiences over the past year, I would say that few political leaders in the world today have had to face more turmoil than May. She’s been working hard to get the British Parliament—and her own party—to support a “Brexit” deal that would pave the way for Great Britain to leave the European Union once and for all.
Recently, May reached a deal with EU officials on the actual terms of an EU exit that she believes will balance the demands of hardline Brexiters for a full and complete break, with those who prefer a softer approach that allows for some lingering cooperation with the EU.
All the negotiation and debates are a lead up to a critical vote in the British House of Commons in mid-December, at which time almost anything could happen. Since announcing the terms of her deal with the EU, several members of her own cabinet have resigned. As many as 54 backbench members of parliament from her own Conservative party are threatening to vote against the deal.
If that many of her own team vote against her, and a majority of the 650-seat House of Commons follow suit, then it is widely believed that May will also have no other choice but to resign. Such is the British parliamentary tradition.
Regardless of what you think about Brexit, it’s hard not to be more than a bit sympathetic about the challenges May is facing. She has an enormous and difficult task ahead of her but is getting no support from her cabinet or caucus. In fact, her team seems to be focused on their own self-interests, rather than the interests of their party or their country. It is very difficult to lead when you are facing opposition and dissent from your own team.
Now, May does not have complete control over who makes up her team. She picks the cabinet ministers but voters pick the MPs in her caucus. May must then build her inner circle from within these groups. She clearly has little control over her own fate. Many business leaders I talk to face similar challenges. They can inherit a team with members who they did not pick and they must still a find away to forge a sense of team with the members they have been dealt. Business leaders have a bit more control compared to May in that if they need to, they can make changes to whomever makes up their teams.
What May’s recent experiences reinforce is the idea that in today’s world, it is impossible to lead effectively and in an accountable way without a good team behind you. You need people who understand what you are trying to do, can follow instructions to the letter and are focused on the goals of the team—not necessarily their own selfish interests.
If your team is full of selfish, self-interested rogues, who are working to subvert your efforts, then it’s unlikely that you are going to move forward.
Still, while it is a leader’s job to build a strong team, it is also a leadership obligation to lead in a way that builds and sustains followership. You cannot be a dictator, or ask people to follow you blindly, without giving them the information that they need to understand the goals you are setting.
In my team’s research, we have asked leaders all over the world to identify the conditions needed for a high-functioning team. The verdict was clear: good teams need clarity on their goals and commitment to the team dynamics.
Clarity and commitment are the yin and yang of team performance. If you give your people clarity, explaining what they need to do and why they need to do it, then you will get commitment. People will go above and beyond minimum levels of effort. They will support each other in pursuit of team accomplishments.
Has Theresa May given her team clarity? It’s hard to say. But clearly many of the members of her cabinet and caucus do not feel a commitment to her or her Brexit goals.
It may be too late for May to foster clarity and gain commitment from her team. However, the good news is that it’s rarely too late for business leaders to take preemptive steps to ensure that their teams are clear on their expectations and goals. The reward will come in the form of total commitment to the team and the ability to move forward in an aligned manner.
This week’s Gut Check for Leaders asks: Is your team fully behind you?