The United Kingdom’s Greek Tragedy: The downfall of Boris

Yesterday, Boris Johnson was on a triumphal march to the leadership of the UK.  Today, his career lies in ruins.  What happened?

Tragedy is “a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences” (from wikipedia).  The essence of Tragedy is that the hero’s greatest strength will end up being the source of his failure… usually just inches from victory.

Boris Johnson lived through a classic tragedy yesterday.

Boris Johnson

UK politician, Boris Johnson is often described as a buffoon, even by his admirers.   His messy, bumbling, self-deprecating persona has long made him one of the best known politicians through his appearances on TV chat shows.  His greatest strength: a magnetic, charismatic character that allows him to engage all sides of the political spectrum.  

His downfall: he makes so many wonderful promises that there is no way he can keep them all.  His own lieutenant realises that he cannot trust Boris and stabs him in the back.

The Events of the Britannic Tragedy

Is this Game of Thrones?  No, it’s even more gruesome…

The British newspapers today are a better read than the final season 6, episode 10 Game of Thrones storyline (wow, how will Daenerys vs Cersei pan out?).  (Some newspaper headlines: “An Act of Midnight Treachery“, “Gove’s thunderbolt and Johnson’s breaking point“, “Farewell to Boris Johnson the great political wrecker of our generation“, “Gove and Johnson: what happened?” …)

Just 2 weeks ago…  It was all going so well for Boris.

Let’s go back 20 years and cover some history…

1999: Boris was made editor of Spectator magazine, promising Conrad Black, the owner, that he would never enter politics.

Boris enters politics.

2008: Boris was given a leadership role in the conservative party, promising he would not run for London mayor against the central party candidate Nick Boles.

He runs for London mayor.

2016: Boris takes a tactical decision to lead the Brexit campaign in the referendum, giving a plausible front face to a campaign previously made up of bigots and angry white men.  He promises everything to everybody.

Michael Gove promises to support Boris Johnson’s run for leadership.

Boris promises jobs to everyone who supports him.

Michael Gove discovers that 300 people have been promised leading roles in a Boris Johnson leadership team.  There are not 300 leadership roles.  Gove wants some clarity on his future role in the Boris Johnson team.  Boris equivocates…

The morning of Boris Johnson’s accession to the throne of conservative party leadership, Gove turns on him and says he cannot be trusted to lead.

The Danger of the Charismatic Leader

Narcissism is “the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes. The term originated from Greek mythology, where the young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water.” (from wikipedia)

The narcissistic leader is missing any internal compass that guides their action.  They are oriented to personal power.  All decisions are short term opportunistic decisions based on the net increase in power.

It is addictive to follow a narcissistic leader.  They know how to make you feel great when they need you.  They know the words you most want to hear.  They know the promises you want them to make.  They make everything seem clear and simple.

Bonus Quiz: Can you spot any narcissistic leader candidates around the world?  I’m writing a long post called “The Global Rise of Populist Politicians: Why Now?” that will be published here in the next week.

How to Spot a Liar

The charismatic leader does not intend to lie.  In the moment that they make the promise they really mean to keep it.  The problem is that they mean the promise because they see it pleases you.  The moment someone else is with them, they will make a promise that pleases them.  They will accumulate promise after promise, pleasing person after person… until they have made so many promises that they have to break some of them.

Be careful of people pleasers.  They are better at pleasing people than at staying the course on a long and challenging voyage.

Be Careful of Simple Answers

The world is not clear and simple.  The problems of the world are complex and connected.  No simple solution will give us back the imagined great past that has been taken away from us.  It is not the immigrants who have made anyone poorer, it is that you cannot do the same work for the same rewards forever.

We must be wary of simple answers to complex, global problems.  We must be wary of charismatic personalities that are willing to say whatever is needed to be said in order to gain power.

The only proof of future performance is past performance.  How has this person behaved in the past.  Words are cheap.  Only actions show the true colours of a person.

Be careful of words.

Look at actions.

The Future is Not So Bad for the Tories

While the future is pretty bleak for the individuals, this tragedy has brought the Tory party together.

After all of the leadership bloodletting we now have 5 candidates who espouse the same 3 priorities for the future:  Brexit + Social Justice + Capitalism.

Maybe it takes an individual tragedy to bring an organisation together?



Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

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