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The Imperfect Leader: lessons from Boris Johnson's Premiership

Updated: Jul 17, 2022

As a coach specialising in Leadership and Transition, I am fascinated by the latest crisis and the resignation of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. For me a great opportunity to study those traits detrimental to anyone in any leadership position.

Some of the characteristics the electorate looks for in a leader have obviously changed in the last 30 years. From the strong and composed style of leadership of the old politicians to the bombastic populists of the last decade. And not surprisingly, in companies, the latest discussion centres more on leaders and CEOs who together with expertise and a proven track record of success - have more "soft skills".

Perfect fit for our times, Boris' popularity and reputation are based on his perceived "authenticity" - what you see is what you get. He's not super smooth and he doesn't pretend to be perfect. He doesn't act as or talk like a politician. Therefore some of the allegations about his conduct didn't seem initially to be shifting public opinion much, if at all. Like Trump, he is liked because he is one of us. Nonetheless, the lies and the obvious attempts to cover them up were eventually too much even for a popular and successful figure like Johnson. Truth still matters. Ultimately integrity and honesty are still high on the list of our values because they are the glue that keeps our society together. Politicians or leaders serve as the face of an organization or a nation and need to lead by example even in the opinion of those who are fascinated by those who tear up the convention playbook. In Johnson's case, turning a blind eye for longer would have questioned the values not only of the Conservative Party but also legitimised a certain type of behaviour.

Drawing from Johnson's premiership here are some important points to keep in mind for anyone at a top of any organisations.

Own up to your mistakes.

The simplest and most powerful tool in crisis communication is still an apology or trying to rebuild relationships with the public and invested stakeholders.

Johnson and 10 Downing Street consistently avoided assuming ownership of problems. They employed the classic Deny and Diminish crisis response strategy by denying that the "partygate" events took place and eventually by shifting the blame to others - junior staff, journalists and news outlets. Once found out, they tried to provide excuses or justifications.

Ultimately when you’re at the head of the ship or serve as the face of an organization, the buck stops with you. As Phillip Arceneaux - professor of strategic communications at Miami University, Ohio- noted ‘’There is a realistic expectation to presume leaders will mess up, make mistakes, no human is perfect and every leader, whether they like to admit it or not, is human. The issue comes in how you choose, or otherwise not, take ownership of the crisis once it goes public." Assuming ownership over wrongs committed, is the mark of great leadership.

Walk the talk

Nobody is above the law and the same rules apply to everyone. Double standards are never well-received because they break the bond of trust.

Think of all the efforts companies and politicians make so we can continue to believe in them. They know that if they create that bond, it may last forever.

"Partygate" showed that the Downing Street political elite led by the Prime Minister could decide on a whim to break the rules that applied to everyone else. When the "we are all in this together" message got re-written over and over again we were left unsure if we could ever believe anything we heard. And when it comes from the top of an organisation is devastating.

Trust may feel instinctive. It's actually based on authenticity - to be true to oneself, having strong values and live by them, "walk the talk"; logic - be knowledgeable professionally and believe in your ideas: empathy - the ability to understand others and have their interest at heart. (Frances X. Frei, Anne Morriss, Begin with Trust, HBR, 2020).

We will never put ourselves in somebody else's hands, otherwise. When we trust somebody, we shift power away from us. We are more forgiving and somewhat blind. Therefore, once we lose confidence and trust, the relationship is beyond repair.

Develop your vision and don't lose focus

"Get Brexit done" was the slogan that made him win the election. Since then there was a lack of focus and ideas. Boris's unique way of running things - and sometimes chaotic approach to decision-making - has won him the nickname "Trolley".

It was Mr Johnson himself who may have coined the analogy, telling friends he was "veering all over the place like a shopping trolley". But lack of focus can confuse your team and leave it unsure about the sense of direction and, most importantly unable to get anything done. It may also suggest a lack of "logic" (Frances X. Frei, Anne Morriss, Begin with Trust, HBR, 2020) making us wonder if the person is really knowledgeable and prepared for the journey ahead.

Character is important

Personality has a significant role and impact on how organisations behave as they set their tone and culture.

In a fascinating article on the HBR When Hiring CEOs, Focus on Character. Personal behaviour can predict which leaders might go astray, Aiyesha Dey takes a step further and identifies off-the-job behaviours that can indicate an executive’s propensity for ethical lapses. The result of the Aiyesha Dey's study interestingly points to two traits -materialism and a tendency to rule-breaking that correlate with suspicious trading activity, financial-reporting errors, and excessive risk-taking. So she infers, if leaders’ personalities "play a significant role in how they behave, and their private actions can affect organisational behaviour" a person’s character should be carefully considered before installing a leader whose life away from the office raises red flags.

Skills can be learned but character is difficult to change. Leaders face a more complex organisational world that requires a clear understanding of their values and those of the company they represent. Consistency, a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility to work with different types of people and the capacity to infer what others are thinking and feeling are more and more necessary in a diverse and increasingly visible corporate world.

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