Wall Street Journal op-ed: The Dangers of Half Measures, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):
In the early summer of 1776, John Adams had grown profoundly exasperated.
King George had declared the 13 American colonies in open rebellion and sent troops to enforce his authority. A declaration of independence, and all-out war, seemed inevitable but still, holdouts in the Second Continental Congress kept clogging the docket with feckless half-measures and spineless appeasements.
“In politics, the middle way is none at all,” Adams fumed that March in a letter to an ally. “If we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping for the middle way.”
One of the hallmarks of a great leader is the ability to convince others to do something difficult under maximum duress. For Adams, America’s loudest voice for independence, this test finally arrived on July 2, 1776, when the matter was put to a vote.
More than two centuries later, on March 29, 2019, British lawmakers convened in London to vote on a different kind of high-stakes divorce proposal: The United Kingdom’s long-planned departure from the European Union.
When Prime Minister Theresa May rose that day to support her Brexit deal, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d spent any time studying the events of 1776. By the time she’d finished talking, I was fairly certain she hadn’t.
These two “exits” were vastly different, of course, but there were a few key similarities. In both cases, the will of the people was clear enough. In 1776, most colonists supported independence, or soon would, while British voters had approved Brexit in a 2016 referendum.
Political maneuvering had delayed both measures for months, and time was running short. The colonists had a war to prepare for, while the U.K. faced the prospect of expulsion from the EU with no accommodations at all.
The key difference was the outcome: The colonies opted for independence without a single dissenting vote, but Parliament rejected Mrs. May’s last-ditch Brexit proposal by a 58-vote margin. John Adams, hailed as the “Atlas” of independence, went on to become president in 1796. On May 24, with no Brexit resolution in sight, Mrs. May announced her resignation.
If there’s a leadership lesson in these two tales, it’s this: The best way to persuade people to do something hard is to present them with the hardest possible choice.
Although Adams lobbied his colleagues tirelessly, he also set limits. He didn’t cut deals to secure votes or waste time negotiating with the king. He wanted delegates to cast their votes on one question only: whether the colonists, and really all people, had a fundamental right to be governed by consent.
By framing the vote as a matter of principle, Adams boxed “the cool crowd,” as he called them, into a difficult corner. They weren’t weighing another bundle of deal points and compromises, they were ruling on the nature of government itself. ...
From the moment she became prime minister in 2016, Mrs. May’s primary job, as she saw it, was to honor the Brexit referendum while negotiating the best deal possible from the EU.
Three years later, on March 29—the very date Britain had originally set for Brexit—she presented Parliament with a proposal that was starkly different from the one Adams had offered. It was, quite literally, a half-measure.
To exit the EU, Parliament had to approve two things: a negotiated withdrawal agreement laying out the practical, immediate details of a Brexit, and a political declaration that would define the U.K.’s relationship with Europe in the future.
Rather than dialing up the pressure, Mrs. May tried to make the vote less intimidating. The more-contentious political declaration, which would ultimately determine the scope and severity of Brexit, was withheld, leaving lawmakers to rule solely on the basic nuts and bolts. In other words, she postponed the tricky bit. ...
Like it or not, the British public chose a difficult, treacherous road. Brexit isn’t an incremental issue, it’s existential. In a case like that, concessions and middle measures only give ditherers more pegs to hang their pet concerns on. ...
[T]he most fateful moments in the life of a nation, or a company, can’t be micromanaged. When a leader arrives at the edge of a cliff, the best approach is to distill the debate down to one stark, unequivocal choice.
Are we going to jump, or not?
Other Captain Class leadership columns:
- When Should 'Gladiatorial Leadership' Be Tolerated (Or Even Encouraged)? (Mar. 21, 2019)
- Gallup's 'Single Most Profound Finding In Its History': 70% Of An Organization's Success Depends On The Quality Of Its Managers (Mar. 27, 2019)
- Great Leaders Abhor Half-Measures: Why John Adams Succeeded With The Declaration Of Independence And Theresa May Failed With Brexit (June 7, 2019)
- How Much Do Coaches (And Deans) Matter? (July 9, 2019)
- The Seven Leadership Secrets Of Great Team Captains (July 26, 2019)
- In A Life-Or-Death Crisis, Humility Is Everything (Aug. 1, 2019)
- Deuteronomy Leadership (Sept. 15, 2019)
- WeWork’s Adam Neumann As A Millennial Jobs Prophet: The Search For Fulfilling Work (Sept. 23, 2019)
- Declining Participation In Football Threatens American Exceptionalism (Jan. 19, 2020)
- Covid-19 Was A Leadership Test. It Came Back Negative. (Apr. 4, 2020)
- The Best Leaders Are Often Reluctant Leaders (Apr. 6, 2020)
- Leadership Lessons From The COVID-19 Pandemic (Apr. 9, 2020)
- Leadership Lessons For The COVID-19 Recovery (Apr. 27, 2020)
- Why Bill Cartwright, Not Michael Jordan, Was The Chicago Bulls' Most Valuable Leader (May 20, 2020)
- Chief Justice Roberts' Rules For Leading In Polarized Times (Oct. 22, 2020)
- The Role Of Empathy In Effective Leadership (Nov. 16, 2020)