HomeEmployee ExperienceCultureWhat BrewDog’s CEO Exit teaches us about fear and leadership in business 

What BrewDog’s CEO Exit teaches us about fear and leadership in business 

  • 5 Min Read

BrewDog CEO exit shows gap between company image & employee reality. HR: open talk about power & fear builds better culture.

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Steve Hearsum

Organisations are awash with emotion, and one of the biggest myths is that much of what happens in them is grounded in rationality. If this were not the case, I suspect I would be out of work. That’s because most of what I do concerns dealing with what can often not be easily expressed and are experienced as behaviours driven by what is left unsaid, well-seasoned with an array of feelings and emotions from the existential ‘spice rack of life’.  

The word ‘toxic’ is bandied about casually when it comes to workplaces that are judged to be unhealthy and/or dysfunctional, and one such under the spotlight in the past few years has been BrewDog, not least down to the (alleged) behaviour of the outgoing CEO and founder, James Watt. Much has been written and broadcast about this, like the open letter from a number of employees written in 2021 and the BBC Disclosure investigation in 2022. The former talked to the emotional impact of leaders’ behaviour on colleagues: 

“The single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear. Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we have left.” 

Perception gaps 

Whilst there are always two sides to a story, what strikes me most about BrewDog and James Watt is two things. Firstly there is clearly significant interpersonal misalignment here. The stories of employees are vastly at odds with the company’s public-facing narrative and what they experience internally. The conflict is palpable, and it reminds me of research carried out in 2006 by Bushe and Grossling (2006)1 that suggests that: 

“80 percent of conflicts at work are based on these inaccurate stories people make up about each other, and the actions they take toward each other are based on them.” 

Chew on that for a moment. Conflict arises and persists due to a failure to inquire into the stories and assumptions we hold about each other. My work with organisations bears this out, and often I notice how much ‘mush’ is caused by a failure to inquire more deeply into perception gaps that results in a serious lack of interpersonal clarity. In simple terms: we fail to inquire deeply enough into our shared experience. The question is: why? 

The ‘P’ word 

In all that has been written about Watt, indeed in much of the discourse around ‘toxic leadership’, the word we seem to be uncomfortable using is power. My hunch is that because, if we do, we need to explore our own relationship with authority, authority figures in organisation, our own historic relationships with people who had power over us and all the stuff that this can on occasion bring up.

I know my own relationship with male authority figures was for a long time a function of my relationship with my alcoholic father and the way he exercised power within the family system. These processes are often unconscious and bend us out of shape long after the events themselves.  

I am not making a call here for hordes of therapists to go into organisations. I am suggesting that a more honest conversation about fear and anxiety, how it connects to shame, and in turn influences organisations, is what is required.  

What might this say about leadership? 

There are many things that inform how leaders show up, and one is their own ego ideal, the image they wish to maintain and hope that others have of them. There is also the organisational ideal, namely what is projected onto leaders. With BrewDog, they put a lot of effort into their brand and image, to build a particular reputation. The stories that have come out over time demonstrate a gap between that idealised narrative and reality, or certainly the reality as a number of employees experience it.  

In stepping down from his CEO role, Watt follows in the footsteps of many leaders who are removed from their leadership role as if this were ‘The Answer’ to the problem. It may help, and it misses the point. Culture is co-created, it is the sum total of everyone’s current behaviours. I recall working in an NHS organisation where 18 months previously a medical director who was widely regarded as bullying and ‘toxic’ had been removed. Despite the time that had passed, some people still behaved as if the same jeopardy was present.

My sense is we need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable, with having conversations that bridge the gap between people rather than resorting to exiting one or other party. The missed opportunity here, maybe, was for a different kind of conversation between leader and employees. For that to have happened, however, it would have required all parties to have been open to the possibility that their version of reality was not wholly true, and that is something it seems we find really hard to do, both in organisations and as a species.  

1 Bushe, G.R. & Grossling, F (2006) Engaging Conflict. The Impact of Clear Leadership Training on how People Think about Conflict and its Management. www.clearlearning.ca/images/stories/pdf/conflict.pdf  

Steve Hearsum is an experienced consultant, supervisor and developer of change practitioners, the founder of Edge + Stretch and the author of No Silver Bullet: Bursting the bubble of the organisational quick fix (out now). 

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