Why leaders fall

The pitfalls of populist leadership

Boris Johnsons fall

We tend to think that leadership is all about the leader, and the qualities that separate them from their followers. But more recently there is a recognition that leadership is better understood when thinking about what connects leaders with their followers. This connection, and its deterioration, is what best explains the end of Boris Johnson’s political career, argue Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam.

 

What on earth just happened? Why, did the electorate and then Tory MPs and finally his own Cabinet turn on the Prime Minister and force him out? It’s not as if the rule-breaking and lies and lack of integrity were anything new. They have been known for years. The public and the politicians voted for him despite (and, as I shall argue below) possibly because of them. The expressions of horror at the Prime Minister’s misdemeanours in MPs and Ministers resignation letters were about as convincing as Captain Renault’s outrage at discovering illegal gambling in the back room at Rick’s in Casablanca.

So, if the lying was no different from before, what was the difference which led his erstwhile supporters to turn on the Prime Minister? And why was it so hard to get rid of him? What led Boris Johnson to cling on well past the point when everyone else considered him to be a dead man walking? Moreover, what did last week’s drama teach us about the psychology of leadership?

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Most of the time we accept and even reward leaders who act immorally, unfairly, dishonestly, even illegally, as long as they do so to the advantage of our group.

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The starting point in answering all these questions lies in understanding the profound disconnect between popular representations and the actual dynamics of leadership. For millennia, leadership has been conceptualised in terms of what distinguishes leaders from followers. Leaders are exceptional beings with unique qualities that allow them to save us when we cannot save ourselves. However, recent work suggests that leadership is better understood as what connects leaders and followers.

Leaders are always leaders of a particular social group. They are effective to the extent that the group recognises them as ‘one of us’: representing the qualities and values which make our group unique, and working towards and promoting the interests of our group. Moreover, in order to be seen as such, leaders play an active part both in defining the nature of the group and the nature of their contribution such that the two are consonant. Effective leaders need to be skilled ‘entrepreneurs of identity’.

There may be some groups which are defined through a strict moral code, such that acting immorally violates a core value, makes one unrepresentative and hence unsuited for office. But most of the time we accept and even reward leaders (and other group members) who act immorally, unfairly, dishonestly, even illegally, as long as they do so to the advantage of our group. Such a leader might be a bastard, but can still be revered as ‘our bastard’.

In the past, Boris Johnson was one of those leaders who was known to lie and cheat - but seen to do so for the group. But, more than that, Johnson’s maverick, rule-breaking persona was integral in establishing him as ‘one of us’. It was the lynchpin in his entrepreneurship of identity. Like many populists, Johnson’s political appeal was rooted in a distinction between two groups. One, ‘us’, is ‘the people’, rooted in a sense of a national community and downplaying distinctions within the nation (such as class). The other, ‘them’, is ‘the establishment’: those with no commitment to the nation, comprised of globalists and aided by a political and liberal metropolitan elite within.

 In the way that he spoke, dressed and behaved Johnson artfully broke all ‘their’ rules. He wasn’t neat and groomed and organised and formal like the typical politician. No, he was an eccentric Englishman in which his obvious privilege – Eton, Oxford, the ostentatious use of Greek and Latin – was of a distinctively English form. And if he lied – say in the notorious claim that the UK was sending £350 million per week to Brussels that could be spent on the NHS instead – the lie set him against the globalising Eurocrats. If it infuriated and undermined “them” (and their Remainer allies) so much the better.

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The danger comes when leaders end up believing in their own publicity and begin to think that they do indeed have magical insight over what ‘the people’ want and of what is good for them.

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Much of this was calculated. The deliberately dishevelled persona was an act of performative politics. It elicited a sense of affectionate recognition which was exemplified even in what we called him. He was Boris. All this is summed up in an iconic picture of ‘Boris’ stuck on a zipwire, a union jack in each hand, looking the utter buffoon. The Economist has the picture on its cover this week, along with the headline ‘Clownfall’. Very clever. But it completely misunderstands the issue. It was the clowning which was the basis of Johnson’s appeal. Unlike other politicians he was very happy to have a laugh – especially at those who laughed at him.

This understanding of the group dynamics of leadership was key to Johnson’s success.  The first rule of social influence is that we are more likely to heed someone who we see as an ingroup member . Correspondingly, the first rule of effective leadership is that you must establish yourself as one of the group. And Johnson, during Brexit and beyond, understood the populist temper of the times more than most.  He understood that conventional party distinctions were increasingly overshadowed by a disdain for politicians as a whole as parasitic on ‘the people’. And, more specifically, he understood that being outrageous was key to being embraced as an ‘anti--politician’ in politics.

But success, especially for a leader, is a very dangerous thing. What is conventionally described as the “charisma” or “the genius” or other mystical properties of the leader, is in fact the very down to earth insight a leader gains through listening and understanding and representing the group. The danger comes when leaders end up believing in their own publicity and begin to think that they do indeed have magical insight over what ‘the people’ want and of what is good for them. Because once you think you know better, you stop listening. And once you stop listening and retreat into a bunker, you can no longer represent the group. And once you fail to represent, you fail to wield influence. This is a familiar ‘trajectory of leadership’ and goes a long way to explaining why so many glittering political careers end in abject failure.

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All the characteristics which once endeared him – the bumbling and fumbling and lying – now revolted his followers as he used them against them, not for them.

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In Johnson’s case, the moment at which he stopped paying heed to ‘the people’ can be dated very precisely to the press conference he gave on Sunday 24th May 2020 to defend Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to Durham. In that moment It became a matter of Johnson’s Government justifying something for themselves which was expressly forbidden to the ‘people’ at large. It was the moment when his rule breaking ceased establishing him as ‘one of us’ and started defining him as ‘one of them’. As soon as that happened, support for the Prime Minister and, even more dramatically, trust in the Prime Minister, crashed. From around 80% to a derisory 20%. The pollsters shook their heads. They had never seen anything like it.

This new categorisation of the political landscape was consolidated and entrenched by the tawdry and drawn out saga of Partygate. Night after night more details emerged of how Johnson and his Government did what they forbade us to do. All the characteristics which once endeared him – the bumbling and fumbling and lying – now revolted his followers as he used them against them, not for them. Every subsequent revelation only cast him and his Government further out into the blue yonder. The Prime Minister became a liability not an asset. That was confirmed in Tiverton and Wakefield. Tory MPs feared for the future. Cabinet colleagues saw opportunities for their own future. “Pinchergate” then simply recapitulated all the issues. In the toxic soup of Johnson’s reign, it provided the seed around which opposition could crystalise.

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For one who likes to parade his Greek, there is much of a Greek tragedy in Johnson’s story. The very maverick qualities which brought Johnson success ultimately brought him down.

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The irony is that, even as people at all levels increasingly rejected him, Johnson was increasingly convinced that he knew better and that he didn’t have to listen because he himself represented the people. Indeed, even more dangerously, debate became impossible because Johnson represented anyone who disagreed with him as frustrating the popular will – not quite ‘enemies of the people’, but getting alarmingly close. So, when nearly 50 Government members resigned in a single day (some 5 times the previous record), Johnson dismissed this as meaningless compared to the 14 million who had voted for him (note, him, not his party or its manifesto). And even when he finally realised that he no longer had a Government to run, Johnson’s resignation speech was little more than a self-justificatory assertion that he had an obligation to stay and enact the people’s mandate.

For one who likes to parade his Greek, there is much of a Greek tragedy in Johnson’s story. The very maverick qualities which brought Johnson success ultimately brought him down. The power which he craved, once achieved, destroyed his connection to the people and ultimately lost him power. His conviction that the people loved him blinded him to their growing disdain. And, underlying all of this, the tragedy illustrates a basic premise of leadership: this Prime Minister came to power as ‘one of us’. He lost power because power made him ‘one of them’.

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