Exit is Exit: What Boris Johnson’s downfall tells us about leadership

The Prime Minister has provided a masterclass in modern leadership – especially what not to do

The prize for this week’s best political pun goes to The Economist, whose front cover pictures the UK Prime Minister tumbling through the sky under the word “Clownfall”, summing up the dramatic events that have forced Boris Johnson to resign.

The Clown is BoJo’s persona, and it is both affected and effective. It makes him accessible to a wide range of voters and helps him laugh off even serious political mistakes. But beneath the bumbling is a serious and self-serving leader who won his party a clear governing majority at a time when such an outcome seemed unlikely. A leader who successfully jumped on Brexit as a route to the top job. A leader who, up until recent months, looked on course to head the Conservatives through the next election, having drawn a line under his Government’s early mismanagement of the COVID pandemic with a successful vaccine roll out, and who even looked as though he might have ridden out “partygate”.

So what happened? How does a seemingly untouchable premier such as Boris Johnson come so dramatically unstuck?

Certainly events have hastened his demise. The Tory leader’s fate has been sealed by high-profile by-election losses, revelations over his direct role in the Pincher scandal, and the subsequent resignations of senior Cabinet ministers. But the central character in this saga is Boris’s character: his personality and relentless pursuit of authority and power. His story provides a masterclass in modern leadership – especially what not to do.

In many ways, the UK PM is adept at a traditional style of leadership. He offers the kind of bigger-than-life ego and ruthlessness that have long been lionised in cabinets and c-suites alike. He encircles himself with weaker and usually deferent lieutenants, and appeals to those who admire Churchillian optimism, brazen opportunism and a presidential style, even if it lacks substance. In business we’d think of him as an old style “company man”: the hard-headed, egocentric CEO who is bent on maximising short-term gains at almost any cost. But this persona no longer works in business, and evidently not in politics either.

Modern leaders – what we call Net Positive leaders – need intelligence, sharp strategy and focus, but above all they put themselves in service of a higher purpose and of others; their deeds match their words and they are committed to facts and truth, even when it could cost them; and they act with humility and empathy, even in the toughest moments. Boris Johnson has failed on all these fronts, and these failings have brought his time in Number 10 to an abrupt close.

  • Net Positive leaders are dedicated to a purpose bigger than themselves, and to serving others 

It’s often said that if passion is about finding yourself, purpose is about losing yourself, in something bigger than you. What is Boris Johnson’s purpose, bigger than himself? We can’t answer that question, because nor can he.

Even before his recent troubles, the Prime Minister was struggling to show people what his Government is for, now that Brexit “got done” and the pandemic no longer consumes every governing moment. There is no grand vision for the country, beyond vague talk of “levelling up”; no overarching, comprehensive policy agenda or systems thinking; no deep sense of duty to either party or nation. Instead there is short-sighted self-interest. Last week, when the resignations were rolling in and it had become clear that Boris had lost the confidence of his own side, his determination to hang on until the bitter end proved what many already suspected. Boris’s primary motivation is Boris: protecting his position, even when his party was imploding; and with total disregard for the British people’s urgent need for effective government as war rages in Europe and living costs surge.

  • Net Positive leaders have high levels of integrity, play by the rules and value facts and honesty 

Leaders across all walks are more trustworthy and follow-worthy when their words and actions match, and when they meet the standards they expect of others. They exhibit probity and veracity.

Yet, as with Donald Trump, Boris’s tenuous relationship with facts and rules has become a widely accepted feature of his tenure. He trades in popular promises over hard truths (remember when he told us COVID would be over by Christmas?). His Government has been mired in sleaze allegations longer than it hasn’t. For years no one even knew for certain how many children he has.

By early 2021, a majority of Brits already found the PM “untrustworthy”. His slipperiness over the Pincher Affair is just the latest example, more damaging because, this time, it came hot off the heels of dishonesty’s twin sin: hypocrisy. Under Johnson, Downing Street became a hotbed of lockdown rule-breaking while citizens around the country were abiding by the government’s own pandemic restrictions. The details have been sometimes farcical (the Government’s own ethic advisor turned up to Number 10 parties with a karaoke machine), and more often sad (including stories of families missing final moments with loved ones and funerals, as they dutifully obeyed the rules).

No one party, lie or scandal did it for Johnson, but the abuses of power have piled up, and his refusal to take responsibility, or to change, eventually became too much for many voters and many of his MPs to ignore. The former Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, put it plainly in his letter standing down from Johnson’s Cabinet: “people rightly expect integrity from their government. The tone you set as a leader, and the values you represent, reflect on your colleagues, your party and ultimately the country.”  

  • Net Positive leaders act with humility and empathy

It takes self-confidence and strength to say when you are wrong. It builds the confidence of others and makes you a better leader. The same applies in business. During COVID we have seen again and again that CEOs who are humble and who act with openness and compassion are better placed to ride out the storm, to continue to grow trust, and to bring their people with them.

These have never been Boris Johnson’s strengths. Even at the end humility has been in short supply, as has self-awareness over the impact of his actions on others. If you didn’t watch the PM’s resignation speech, I can summarise it for you: “I have been the most electorally successful Conservative leader in years, but have been forced out by the herd”. And he had a thinly-veiled warning for colleagues who had moved against him: It could happen to any of you. He didn’t say: “I made mistakes.” He didn’t say: “I abused the authority handed to me by the British people and many of you have been left hurt, disappointed and even more disillusioned than you were.” He didn’t say: “I’m sorry.” As a result, it’s difficult to believe he’s learned a thing.

Let’s hope, at least, that the Conservative candidates now battling for the top spot have learnt something. Clownfall demonstrates that bluster, confidence and the ruthless pursuit of power are no substitute for real strength and leadership. Prime Minister, you’ve reminded us that even in politics – a world which on its bad days can be vicious and deceitful – purpose, service, integrity, truth, humility, empathy and character matter, and matter a lot. Leaders everywhere should take note.