leadership expert on why not taking responsibility degrades politics

What is the difference between taking responsibility and taking responsibility? The first thing is what Prime Minister Boris Johnson keeps telling us he is doing. But the latter is what Sue Gray says senior figures at the heart of government should do.

“Centre senior management, both political and official, must take responsibility for this culture,” the official wrote in her report on rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during the pandemic.

As I have written in my paper on leadership, if you have a responsibility, you carry a brand. People can see that you are responsible. This is not what the prime minister is doing. He takes responsibility and then immediately walks back on it.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this behavior. It is precisely what he did as a journalist, pitching fictitious accounts of life in Brussels to his editors at the Daily Telegraph. As he himself admitted to documentary filmmaker Michael Cockerell:

I found out I was throwing these rocks over the garden wall and I heard this incredible crash from the greenhouse next door in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having an amazing and explosive effect on the Tory party and it really gave me this, I guess, pretty weird feeling of power.

Jim Collins, the leadership guru and author of such classic management texts as Built to Last and How the Mighty Fall, says we should ask any aspiring leader, “What are you in this for?”

In Johnson’s case, it often seems that his prime ministership serves no purpose other than to continue in office. Many would find it difficult to identify a clear moral or even political direction.

why does it matter

Johnson talks about leadership, but arguably shows almost zero understanding or ability to offer it. Perhaps after receiving legal advice prior to the police investigation, Johnson asserted that it was his duty as a leader to show up at farewell parties and raise a glass to mark the departure of his colleagues.

This explanation of his presence at events that broke lockdown rules may have been enough to satisfy the Metropolitan Police. But his real duty as a leader is and was to set an example and not tolerate breaking the rules, which he must have been aware of but now claims not to have been.

His duty is also to show that Number 10’s standards need to be sanitized and that, as head of government, he recognizes that he can no longer function as prime minister. His duty, as a leader, must be to resign.

Is this just over-excited Westminster gossip that has limited meaning to people facing a cost-of-living crisis in the real world? Should we just calm down and, as we are urged, “move on”? I’m not afraid Another duty of political leadership is to avoid moral contagion and the degradation of public life. With each day he remains in office, Johnson damages the reputation of that office.

In Parliament, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood asked his colleagues if they could continue to defend Johnson’s behaviour. Treasury Chief Secretary Simon Clarke answered “yes”, and exchanged smiles with his fellow cabinet member, Jacob Rees-Mogg. This is what moral contagion looks like. This is how big companies and organizations fall: when an overly powerful leader infects those around him, it is usually a he, demanding unconditional loyalty and complicity in immoral acts.

where the corruption begins

This is the slip, the moral relativism, when decent people end up corrupted by trying to justify the unjustifiable. It is often accompanied by a kind of delusional humor, as those trapped in a decaying system try to keep their spirits up with smiles and jokes.

Recall Johnson’s first post-election cabinet meeting, when adults were asked to repeat election slogans: “Done Brexit!” “40 new hospitals!” – for television cameras. The ministers laughed, pretending to be in on the joke. But there was nothing funny about the show.

The Cabinet has been drawn to defend Johnson’s behaviour.
Issue 10/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

It matters how a prime minister behaves, for democracy, for standards in public life, for our own general welfare. The leader of a nation sets an example and sets the standard. But, for Johnson, leadership too often means “getting away with it” until the next day’s newspapers arrive, when the cycle of deception, misdirection, and denial begins all over again. It is a pitiful and harmful spectacle that harms us all. Johnson doesn’t seem to care or appreciate why he should care. But, as a leader, he should.

This article has been amended to clarify the author’s experience.

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