It is a fact that the prime minister’s appointment on 24 July prompted a rise in Conservative party popularity, with fresh polling for Kantar TNS putting them on 42% ahead of Labour on just 28%. Although policy pledges may well have played a part, this unprecedented upturn is likely to be down to other factors as well.
Here we look at one of those factors (one that is often overlooked by the media): the leadership style of the new PM. Putting politics to one side, let’s put Johnson’s leadership style under the microscope.
Leadership doesn’t just involve behaviours and verbal communications but the way these two elements relate to each other, with impressions of honesty and trustworthiness arising from a close match between these elements. This is especially important given that 65% of the cues people notice are non-verbal, and a mere 35% verbal.
So what kind of leader is Johnson and how do his behaviours relate to his words? A modern style of leadership, so-called ‘inclusive leadership’, is one that enhances employee productivity, motivation and wellbeing, and customer satisfaction (these findings emerged strongly from research I conducted in industry and with students in universities). Since becoming PM, Johnson’s behaviours are a perfect fit with this model.
Examples abound. Standing outside Downing Street when making his first speech as PM for example, he spoke of: “chang[ing] the country for the better” (an example of inspirational motivation by providing an appealing vision); the fact that “my job is to serve you, the people are our bosses” (stewardship in the service of society); “my job is to protect you” (healing, helping followers cope with burdens); “it is time that we unleashed the productive power of every corner [of the land]” (confidence building); and “my job is to make sure that your kids get a superb education wherever they are” (growth, encouraging followers to reach their full potential, and intellectual stimulation).
Then, breaking with convention, he addressed people twice from inside Downing Street via Facebook Live, first on 9 August and then on 14 August in a historic, first-ever people’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Addressing his audience as if in a conversation, opening with a simple “good evening” or “good afternoon”, he brings the public with him in speaking of “seeing some absolutely wonderful things around this country” (confidence building), wanting “this country to be the greatest place” (inspirational motivation) and ensuring that “your neighbourhood is a safe place” (healing). He also addresses questioners by their names (individualised consideration), often praising the speaker for the wisdom of their questions (confidence building again).
Throughout the speech in his office, Johnson leans over the desk, lowers his arms onto the desk and appears to be reaching out to his audience. His body language is matching the inclusivity of his language, giving an aura of credibility to the words expressed.
However, is his approach genuine or the work of a demagogue? His statements are not always correct of course (those made in respect of NHS spending on the steps of Downing Street are questionable since some of the monies referred to are pre-existing not new monies). But the impression of honesty is there.
Contrast with other leaders
So how do Johnson’s behaviours compare to both his predecessor Theresa May’s, as well as French president Emmanuel Macron’s on the other side of the Channel? In December last year after the first riots in France, Macron addressed the nation behind his desk. But unlike Johnson he sat bolt upright. For most of his speech, he avoided addressing his audience as “you”, beginning not with a cosy “good evening” but with a “French people, here we are together at the meeting of our country and our future” – abstract words without the emotional exuberance of Johnson’s.
As for May, it was not uncommon for her to refer to the British public as “ordinary people”, suggesting a hierarchical distance between her and the public that is far from the individualised consideration associated with an inclusive leader.
Lessons for organisations
Johnson has presided over an unprecedented improvement in the Conservatives’ rankings and it could well be that his inclusive leadership style has played a major role. Only time will tell whether Johnson is successful in igniting a move to a more inclusive culture overall. But the fact his party has moved up the polls suggests a strong appetite for this style of leadership in the UK.
Political viewpoints aside, organisations can learn from Johnson’s leadership style, since it guarantees better productivity, motivation and wellbeing on the part of employees, and higher levels of customer satisfaction.
Gloria Moss is a professor at the IPE Management School Paris and training and development practitioner