The lessons business leaders can learn from Number 10’s lockdown party

Doug Baird, CEO at NSCG

We’re only days into 2022 and the Prime Minister is already facing a huge leadership challenge. Doug Baird, Founder and Chief Executive of New Street Consulting Group looks at what business leaders can learn from the garden party fiasco threatening Boris Johnson’s tenure.

Authenticity has become a mainstay for progressive leaders. Being genuine and combining personality with professionalism enables them to lead with their hearts, as well as their minds. It’s a successful style that inspires and influences others because it embraces empathy and ‘humanises’ senior individuals, who can otherwise seem disconnected from the very people they are aiming to lead.

An authentic leadership style has been pivotal to the Prime Minister’s popularity and his standing as a leader. He’s brought a seemingly unpolished approach to his role and retained his individuality. There have been criticisms about his image and how he conducts himself. In many senses, it could have been easier for such a senior leader and public figure to address potential negatives and to conform with traditional expectations. Boris has done the reverse, by being himself to create standout and engagement. In doing so, he had often managed to align himself with public opinion, previously garnering the majority of the UK’s confidence during challenging times of Brexit and COVID.

However, to reap the rewards of authentic leadership, senior leaders must always maintain their authenticity. This is why allegations about attending a garden party during lockdown in May 2020 have proved so damaging for Boris’ leadership position, and which provide valuable lessons for business leaders aspiring for success by being authentic.

1) Lead by example

When the rule-makers become the rule-breakers, it very quickly alienates the very people who leaders are attempting to build trust with. As we’ve seen with public reaction to the lockdown garden party, it’s prompted the question about ‘why is there one rule for us and another for them?’

Effective leaders must genuinely believe what they are asking of their teams and stakeholders and be prepared to do as they say. Failure to do so erodes any form of conviction and won’t motivate people into action.

Leading by example is now much more important for business leaders. Many employees have made personal sacrifices and worked hard to embrace changing ways of living and working during the pandemic. They’ve done this whilst there have been many, alleged, instances of high-profile government breaches of lockdown and they are increasingly questioning and valuing leaders who are ‘one of them’.

Authentic leadership will evolve to include a much higher degree of ‘example-ism’ and will be crucial to building trust and belief amongst employees. The challenge for business leaders is to find the balance when it comes to delegating and to not get too bogged down in the detail.

2) Don’t deflect or make excuses

People make mistakes and things do go wrong. When this happens, the most effective way to salvage reputation and maintain credibility as a leader is to act with integrity by taking ownership of your errors.

By initially failing to take the garden party allegations seriously, in the hope that they’d go away, the Prime Minister enflamed the situation. He failed to read the room and appreciate just how much it mattered to the people he represents.

The situation was then made worse by his attempted explanation that he didn’t realise it was a party. At best, this is perceived as an excuse and one that has no plausibility. It has further undermined his own credibility and intensified the calls for him to resign from his position of power.

Effective leaders can quickly gain control of a potentially damaging situation and limit its fallout by acknowledging what is happening and refrain from making excuses. This will help avoid prolonging the criticism of a leader and avert more questions about their capabilities and decision-making. Instead, energy and effort can be focused on restoring their leadership credentials.

3) Make more than an apology, address the situation head on

The PM’s attempted apology was immediately overshadowed by his claims that he thought the garden party was a work event. However, he has further risked his leadership position by insisting it’s important to wait for the completion of the inquiry into alleged government parties during lockdown.

Such deliberation is at complete odds with his forthright approach to how he’s previously addressed difficult events, such as Brexit and the introduction of the first COVID lockdown in March 2020. The contrast in how he’s approaching the garden party situation damages his authenticity and makes him appear as though he’s attempting a cover-up.

An apology, as long as it’s sincere, will often be welcomed, but more importantly, it must be backed up with clear and corrective action. Successful leaders will be prepared to tackle issues and quickly resolve problems by demonstrating what lessons have been learnt and what steps will be taken to avoid a repeat of wrongdoings. Such an approach helps avoid sowing further seeds of doubt and scepticism amongst employees and stakeholders.