As a psychologist, I look at Boris Johnson and I worry for Britain

Our prime minister is displaying some troubling traits which will define how the UK will leave the EU

Chantal Gautier
Tuesday 03 September 2019 18:15 BST
EU says Boris Johnson's government has 'shown us no concrete proposals' in Brexit talks

With Brexit looming and a snap election lurking in the background, the question everyone is asking is whether our prime minister has what it takes to lead us into unknown territory.

I study the psychology of business, and from this standpoint, it is fascinating to observe politicians’ behaviour, particularly when distinguishing between effective and ineffective leadership styles.

We used to focus in on the leaders themselves, and their specific personality traits, but more modern theories focus on what they actually do and how they behave towards their followers.

The underlying assumption behind “trait theory” is that leaders share common characteristics, and traditionally, leadership traits have been associated with masculinity, intelligence, extraversion, dominance, status, confidence, charisma, vision and power.

When comparing Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the differences are pretty clear. Johnson displays many of those traditional traits, May displayed fewer (so we might say that she didn’t show extraversion, dominance, or power). Some say May’s inability to push her deal through parliament was the result of poor leadership. The difficulty is that we’ll never know if Johnson, in a similar position, would have suffered the same fate.

What we do know, however, is that the key to successful leadership is grounded in integrity. Perhaps this is what differentiates good politicians from poor ones. But is there such a thing as a “natural leader”?

If you agree with the so-called great man theory of history, then you might think leaders are simply born with the “right stuff”, suggesting leadership is innate. If this was the case, to what extent could we, for example, teach someone to be charismatic?

May, unlike Boris Johnson, was never perceived as charismatic. In fact, it would seem inauthentic, or even cruel, to impose such a demand on anyone, let alone an apparent introvert such as May.

And in any case, that notion that charismatic people make good leaders is not necessarily true. It is a short walk from charisma to manipulation or even cockiness. Just have a look at chatter about Johnson on social media.

This raises some interesting questions about how our current PM might be engaging with peers and subordinates. As a leader should, does he engage and show interest in his peers, and does he instil trust and communicate openly? The evidence we have is that most of his communications to the general public have been deemed untrustworthy, with the latest reports suggesting the government has been misleading the public about progress in Brexit negotiations with Brussels.

Good leaders should lead by example, and lead with integrity. It is through this integrity we instil trust and foster buy-in from our followers. Other leadership qualities include listening to others’ ideas and suggestions. This, however, can only be facilitated if leaders can acknowledge their own limitations.

In doing that, they build a strong team of people with a wide range of competencies and capabilities to supplement their own shortcomings, while reducing the “doppelganger effect”. From my viewpoint, sadly, it looks like Johnson is more comfortable creating like-minded clones around him, and that these people may even be the ones pulling the strings.

And then there is Johnson’s “no ifs, no buts” motto. Does this signal a top-down leadership approach? It’s all very well to talk about “fulfilling the mandate of the people”, but does our prime minister actually have a plan beyond his own plan for himself? Nobody seems to know.

And without a solid plan, one derived from consensual leadership, from listening to those with skills he doesn’t possess, and from an inherent sense of integrity, what then does he have? Johnson’s approach might well be putting the UK at risk and with nothing yet revealed which might be seen as a strategy.

That is a red flag for decisions simply driven by ego. Now, a healthy ego is no bad thing to have for a leader, but it becomes problematic when ego takes over and is put in the mix with power, arrogance, cockiness and the notion of being “seen to be right”. This can trigger blind spots in how we perceive the world around us.

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Many people perceive that Johnson displays these flaws, and if he and his advisers really are stuck in this ego-driven “master of the universe” delusion, then we could be in trouble.

Looking a little further ahead, it is common to observe Johnson’s leadership style as the kind of boyish, public-school persona that has a unique appeal in UK culture. What is familiar, even endearing, bumbling to British eyes is unlikely to sit well with EU leaders. This could have a potentially detrimental impact on the challenge of upcoming EU negotiations. Leadership styles can be a national, cultural signifier, but there are standards of competence and approach which set apart a truly international leader.

Boris Johnson’s leadership skills and approach to negotiation will play a pivotal role in how the UK will leave the EU. That simple fact is troubling. He will need to keep his ego and his cockiness in check so that he does not put the UK at risk.

My advice is for the PM to look inwards, reflect and to identify some of the belief systems that underpin the way he behaves. And maybe use that to conjure a plan that is for the country, and not just for the leader.

Chantal Gautier is a senior lecturer in business psychology at the University of Westminster

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