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What can we learn from Boris Johnson’s leadership?

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Whether or not you voted for him, or share his political beliefs, “BoJo the Clown” seems to weather political storms, PartyGates and survive.

Despite making mistakes and being mired in political controversy, Boris Johnson has remained in power.

What is it about him and his larger-than-life leadership style that has meant the Conservative party sticks by him and people vote for him? And what can we learn from this style?

Leading cultural psychologist, Gurnek Bains, has explored the psychological reasons Boris Johnson appeals as a leader.

Emotional connection

Whilst we may like to think of ourselves as rational human beings, basing our views of our leaders on facts and competence, we are much more emotionally driven when it comes to decision making about those who lead the country. Boris understands that and plays to it. He doesn’t fixate on churning out facts, and instead, engages with us emotionally, and often with very positive optimistic emotion.

When he does make mistakes or things goes wrong, he dusts himself off and carries on with his positive emotional attitude.

Often our own unconscious bias can affect our thinking and this emotional connection. Bias is a natural inclination of our minds and neuroscience shows that up to 99% of our thoughts can be unconscious. This can lead to false assumptions about ourselves and others.

In leadership it is important to identify biases, adopt strategies to mitigate unconscious bias and learn from others experience.


There can be no denying Boris Johnson makes mistakes, he speaks off the cuff, but then he retracts. Whilst some may feel this leads to issues of trust, for others, this gives a sense they are dealing with somebody that’s authentic, who’s fallible like them, who makes mistakes and who can change course if they get something wrong. This sense of authenticity is engaging for people.

There is an element of seeing Boris as a peer. This makes people respond more favourably to him.

Giving a narrative

Boris gives us a narrative and a story. Psychological research says we respond more to stories, than facts and data. Boris plays to a very clear narrative. His narrative is that Britain is a fantastic, exceptional country and we can do great things. The subtext to this narrative is that, even though we face great challenges as a country, with plucky determination and creativity, we can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Throughout the two great challenges of his leadership – Brexit and Covid-19, Boris has told a narrative that is coherent, positive and that many people want to hear.

It’s interesting to compare Boris to the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer. He’s a distinguished lawyer, deals in facts and often makes very pertinent points but one of his challenges is his likeability factor. He doesn’t connect emotionally; he doesn’t hold a clear narrative and doesn’t convey the same positivity.

These three elements are what ultimately draw people to leaders.

But, before the conflict in Ukraine, it looked as though Boris’s hold on power was beginning to slip with both public and party trust being undermined by the revelations of socialising in Downing Street whilst the rest of the country were under strict lockdown rules.

Trust in leadership

However engaging a leader, they should still be held to a high ethical standard. Leaders should not be beyond reproach and should be held accountable for their actions. Particularly when they have set the rules and regulations themselves.

Trust in leadership is essential and leaders need to act with integrity. The more a team trusts its leader, the more effectively it will work as a team.

In 2014, the Institute of Leadership and Management undertook a survey and found that the industries and sectors with the lowest internal trust where the employees didn’t trust their own organisation, had the lowest trust from the public. Distrust breeds distrust.

And this is where Boris Johnson needs to careful. Has he pushed the trust of his party and the country too far?

Developing rapport helps to establish trust. Boris definitely has rapport but another way to develop trust is to listen and empathise. If Boris is going to rebuild party and public trust, he needs to listen to what is being said and empathise with these sentiments. Again, this goes back to building an emotional connection. Boris has proved he can dust himself off from previous mistakes with a positive attitude, but it will be interesting to see whether this works again now that we’re refocussing on his actions during the pandemic.

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