Leadership and Contingency Plans

The General Election results have for the second time in recent history demonstrated the importance of having a Plan B.  What I am referring to is the Brexit vote – for most people there was little thought to the fact that Britain would vote “out” seen through comments such as “If I had known we would be out, I would have voted to stay in!”  The Conservative government at the time, also did not consider the fact that the British people would vote “out” and therefore create a Plan B, or contingency to kick in if the unspeakable happened.  Thus, the hasty resignation of David Cameron immediately afterwards and the chaos that ensued to find another Prime Minister.  Not to mention the “no man’s land” that we all seemed to feel with no leader at the helm and the potential impact that had on business both nationally and internationally.

Again in the recent election results, there was no thought to the fact that the Conservatives would not win.  How can any leader be so confident, or we might say egotistical?  In this blog I am not advocating any particular party preference or view.   It is strange however that on both occasions, not too far apart from each other, it is the Conservative leadership who have fallen into the same trap of not expecting the unexpected.

Where was Plan B?  In other words why, in both cases was there no apparent discussion on the possibility of the vote going in the opposite direction to firstly the planned goal and secondly the desires of the leadership party?   Effective leadership is certainly about driving towards a specific goal by inspiring and motivating those that are responsible for making it happen, but we should never be so overly confident as to not ask the question “What if…..” and have a plan B for that eventuality.

Most leaders are motivated to avoid failing, because firstly we plan to succeed, but secondly we need to manage the emotions of disappointment and self shame which often turns to self anger and self-beratement when we realize that we did not achieve that goal, and therefore are imperfect, and consequently everyone else suffers in the same manner.  OK, we had no Plan B.  Now what?  

Failure is an opportunity.  In a crisis many leaders want to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders – “I got us into this mess, I will get us out”  (Theresa May) when actually the way forward is to work with your team with humility and collaboration to find a new way forward and to learn from the experience.  Failure helps to re-visit and re-define priorities.  This might mean giving up the original goal or re-defining the goal and then moving forward.

Columbus was looking for India, Alexander Graham Bell was trying to invent a hearing aid, and Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame was planning to sell his chicken recipe to restaurants.  Often what we are planning to happen leads us to something very different.

Plan B is not only for large scale situations, such as running a country, but for smaller situations where the impact of if it goes wrong carries high risk on business operations – the server crashes, your main supplier goes bankrupt, your tanker transporting goods damages it’s hull etc.  Whilst it might not be the most sexy task, it does help provide calmness in the ensuing chaos, focus, and ultimately a framework and goals to continue to exercise effective leadership.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, The Great Antartic Explorer and his men survived the wreck of their ship “Endurance” coming home in good health and good spirits all because of Shackleton’s leadership.  He later wrote “The disaster had been looming ahead for many months, and I had studied my plans for all contingencies a hundred times.  The task ahead was likely to be long and strenuous, and an ordered mind and clear program were essential if we were to come through without loss of life.”  (Shackleton’s Way, Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell)

Perhaps its time for us all to take a leaf out of Shackleton’s book and ensure when the risk is high to our operations that we have a Plan B?


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