Britain’s destiny is uncertain. The country is in the middle of a political and, arguably, an identity crisis as well. At such a challenging moment it is understandable if people might long for a charismatic figure to lead them out of it. Indeed, that is probably one of the evolutionary functions of charismatic leadership: when a degree of mindlessness may be helpful for the survival of the group. But the complexities of negotiating a successful Brexit require something less intoxicating and more thoughtful.
As we’ve argued before, people fall in love with charismatic leaders because we believe they represent our ideal version of ourselves. A version we would, sometimes unconsciously, like to be. But no human being is ever ideal. When we expect perfection from a leader we set ourselves up for severe disappointment.
Boris Johnson’s undoubted charisma, although a mystery to some, is much remarked upon. But apart from an instant sugar rush of ephemeral optimism what can his charisma provide? Not managerial competence or a serious grasp of detail; nor, equally importantly, the genuine and lasting inspiration that a truly capable leader might bring.
In response to the timeless challenge made by leadership gurus Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee, “Why should anyone be led by you?”, we suggest that inspiring, as opposed to merely charismatic, leadership is what’s needed right now. Inspiring leaders help people build and sustain strength and long-term improvement, in an organisation or in a society. While charisma is based on an instant and uncritical falling in love, inspiring leadership arises out of a more mature form of discerning love between leader and followers.
Grading Johnson’s performance
We’ve asked more than 500 managers the question, “Who have you personally known in your real life that has been inspiring to you?” in workshops over the years. Their answers reveal six key elements necessary for a leader to inspire. Let’s measure the UK’s current prime minister against them and see how he scores.
1. Being the exemplar: inspiring leaders demonstrate a clear set of strong values through their behaviour. These provide a role model that empowers their followers to take sometimes difficult decisions and actions.
Boris Johnson’s values are much questioned and seemingly shifting. There is a strong suspicion (shared, apparently, by former prime minister David Cameron) that his primary driver is to attain power for himself. Score: 2/10
2. Articulating a future: Effective leaders create a clear picture of a future state that provides followers with direction. By taking them there first in their imagination they provide a pull factor for changing current behaviour.
Boris Johnson’s picture of a future Britain is hyperbolically optimistic but lacking in detail and a route map to get there. Score: 4/10
3. Reading the situation: Leaders use their intuition to gauge the appropriate timing and course of their actions through reading people, gauging their likely reactions to a situation and identifying future trends and dynamics that will drive behaviour.
Boris Johnson may be quite a good reader of people but apparently he is a poor reader of the likely impact of his behaviour on them. He seems to have no detailed analysis of Britain’s likely future but is driven by what he believes most people want. Score: 3/10
4. Affirmation: Inspiring leaders provide people with an accurate sense of their actual and potential contribution and worth. They enable people to feel good about themselves by making them feel appropriately valued.
Boris Johnson is very positive about people as long as they support him. He seems to lose patience quickly when they don’t, as he did with the 21 Tory “rebels”, who lost the whip as soon as they refused to support him. Score: 2/10
5. Having the difficult conversations: Inspiring leaders do not avoid difficult conversations – they are prepared to provide constructive critical feedback that enables people to develop. They give people what they need rather than necessarily what they want.
Boris Johnson bumbling style is unlikely to provide those who work for him with clear, constructively critical feedback. When frustrated he seems quick to break off relationships as he did with Luxembourg prime minister, Xavier Bettel, preferring to abandon their press conference rather than discuss how Brexit negotiations were going. Score: 1/10
6. Being authentic: Inspiring leaders are able to be true to themselves in a skillful way, authentic both to themselves and to the requirements of the situation in which they find themselves. By acknowledging inevitable imperfections and vulnerability they create a climate in which others can do the same.
This is an area where Britain’s prime minister scores quite highly for some people. By acknowledging he is far from perfect, he creates a sense that he is a human not a robot. Yet doubts remain about how authentic the persona he presents truly is. Maybe it is all just a bit of an act. Score: 5/10
So as far as being an inspiring leader is concerned the prime minister, sadly, has to be considered a failure (17 points out of 60, or 28%). He needs to make a better effort next term – if given another chance.