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Jacinta v. Boris: how political leadership styles differ

Clodagh Hughes considers the leadership styles of Boris Johnson and draws comparisons with his predecessor Theresa May and Jacinta Ardern., New Zealand's Prime Minister and a relative newcomer to the political stage. This article was first published in The Sunday Business Post newspaper.


Boris Johnson’s leadership credentials have been put under the spotlight as the political mess that is Brexit rumbles on. For business owners and senior managers, watching the British prime minister and his predecessor Theresa May in action provide valuable insights into the leadership gaps that get in the way of achieving buy-in and delivering other successful outcomes.

So much has been said and written about Boris Johnson, most of it extremely negative. He is considered divisive and egotistical, someone who puts his political interests ahead of the national interest.

He plays loose with facts and he can flip-flop on critical topics, even Brexit. Former colleagues have raised serious questions about his judgment and some unsavoury aspects of his character, such as his attitude to women.

Making emotional connections

Yet his positive qualities are often overlooked and are what have helped him get to where he is. Like him or loathe him, there is no doubt that he is super smart. He earned a scholarship to Eton and even his opponents recognise his charisma. He has innate abilities as a public speaker.

He connects with his audience at an emotional level. He has connected with Brexit fatigue and the swathe of the British public who have tuned out the factual reality of how detrimental a no-deal scenario would be.

Jeremy Vine, the BBC presenter, recently recalled a speech that Boris Johnson gave at an awards ceremony. He arrived late, wasn’t sure what the awards were about, scribbled notes on a menu and then left it behind. He told jokes, forgot the punchline and had the audience “hooting and cheering”.

Some time later, Vine saw the British Prime Minister speak again at an event and was astonished to witness a repeat performance. Vine queried his original assessment that he was in the presence of genius. This time he asked: “Is this guy for real?”

Boris Johnson is about style and not substance. The opposite was the case with Theresa May, whose conviction and resilience could not be faulted. Yet she failed to win support, because she was considered aloof and out of touch. Her inability to have an emotional connection with people was most evident when she visited Grenfell Tower after the fire and spoke more about the emergency services than the victims.

Inspirational leadership

As the world seems to limp from one geopolitical crisis to the next, we are increasingly despairing of political leaders. However, there was a rare example of inspirational leadership earlier this year when a relative newcomer, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, responded to the terrorist atrocity against Muslims in Christchurch.

When she was elected in 2017, she was the country’s youngest ever Prime Minister and promised that her government would be empathetic.

Her message following the Christchurch mosque shootings was simple. “They are us,” she said about the dead and injured, “because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, home for those who share our values”.As for the killer, she said, “you may have chosen us – we utterly reject and condemn you”.

Her words and forceful delivery commanded global attention and respect. Her early critics, who questioned whether there was substance behind her rhetoric, have been silenced by her decisive action on gun control, her blueprint on climate change and her video messages, which deal head-on with tough issues such as housing.

Learnings for business leaders What are the lessons for business leaders from these contrasting leadership styles?

  • Effective leadership requires style and substance. Business leaders need to focus on both qualities to influence and persuade others – and ultimately to get the results they want. Ardern combines both to great effect.

  • Connect emotionally with the people you are trying to influence. All too often, business leaders overload their speeches with facts and figures and fail to connect emotionally with staff, peers, customers and others they are trying to persuade. They could follow Johnson’s example by keeping the message simple, not being afraid to tell jokes and knowing the emotional triggers that will grab their audience’s attention.

  • Focus on others, not on you. All leaders rely on other people to get things done. Behavioural science tells us that the art of persuasion works on the basis of appealing to a limited set of deeply rooted human needs. If people feel they are being listened to, they will be far more responsive to the message and more likely to take on board what is being said and what is being asked of them. To achieve this, business leaders should first ask: “What’s in it for those I am trying to influence?” The answers should help craft the message.

  • The most effortless presentations take the most effort. Never underestimate how much preparation it takes for a speech to seem casual. Johnson’s chaotic style and his supposed spontaneity come from a lot of practice.

  • Charisma doesn’t always come naturally but can be learned. Some leaders are naturally charismatic, but others have to learn and perfect the skills. They need to be open to changing their styles and be prepared with professional help to become more influential, persuasive and trustworthy in the eyes of others they are trying to convince.

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