David Davis ruffled media feathers at the start of Phase II of the UK’s Brexit negotiations with the EU by heading back to London after just one hour of talks.

His swift departure, which has not been adequately accounted for, stood in stark contrast to his words leading up to the session: “For us, it is incredibly important that we now make good progress, that we negotiate through this and identify the differences so that we can deal with them, and identify the similarities so we can reinforce them. And now, it’s time to get down to work.”

It is even more ironic considering that, in the late 1980s when he was an executive at Tate & Lyle, Davis wrote a management textbook called How to Turn Round a Company in which he stressed the importance of negotiations. Of the process in general, Davis wrote that it “puts a premium on nerve”, adding: “A general air of visible determination and activity is extremely important to the perception-shaping exercise.”

Davis’ flight from Brussels has provided open goals for the opposition, with shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer saying: “Since the election the government has been in disarray. There is no agreed Cabinet position on vital Brexit issues, the negotiating team is not prepared and the Prime Minister has lost her authority. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the risks are increasing day by day. David Davis can hardly say this is the time to get down to business and then spend only a few minutes in Brussels before heading back to Whitehall.”

Davis was also criticised for being photographed at the negotiating table without briefing papers or notes. With all this in mind, what must leaders do to really make sure they are taken seriously and making an impact as negotiations commence?

The Institute of Leadership and Management's CEO Phil James says: “If this furore shows us anything, it’s the extent to which leaders are scrutinised. Sure, this is a particularly high-profile leader because of the spotlight on Brexit. But he’s being watched to see how many papers he takes into a briefing, and various spins are put on that: either he’s very mentally prepared and has everything in his mind, or he’s fearful of the cameras picking up what’s on the papers, or perhaps the amount of papers he takes in with him signifies something important. And then he leaves early, and that is also deemed significant.

“So what it demonstrates is that leaders need to explain and clarify what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Davis may have left Brussels because he doesn’t need to be there, and because he trusts his team to get on with the task without him. But we don’t know, we can only conjecture. As such, there’s a real need for honest and transparent communication.”

However, James explains: “I also think that one of the ways in which you show people that they are valued is by giving them your time. By being present when they need you. And I think in this situation, the message that Davis isn’t giving enough time is a very powerful one. If he isn’t able to convincingly explain or refute that – which indeed he could; as I said, he may have his reasons – then that must be addressed. As leaders, we must be authentic, honest and transparent in the way we communicate and explain our actions. And it’s clear from this scenario that nothing is done under the radar anymore.”

He adds: “Given the sensitivities of these negotiations, it’s difficult to discern Davis’ motives from the outside. One could assume that he knows better than the rest of us, and has simply devised his own ways of contending with the nuanced behaviours that emerge from talks such as these. But from a leadership point of view, you can only stress how closely observed we are – and that there’s a tangible need to assure your team not only that you trust them to do a great job for you, but that you’ve got their back, too.”

For thoughts on how to inspire as a leader, check out these resources from the Institute

Image of David Davis courtesy of Twocoms, via Shutterstock