How to solve a problem like Boris? When leaders say one thing and do another

7 June 2022

No Prime Minister wants to find themselves facing a vote of no confidence, but that’s exactly where Boris Johnson found himself last night.

As a leader he demanded the country stuck to strict rules during the Covid-19 lockdowns; rules he has subsequently been found to have breached through parties held at the centre of government. “Do as I say, not as I do” is an idiom that leaves a bitter taste, destroys trust, and portrays a self-serving quality to leadership that is corrosive. He may have survived last night’s vote, but he will need to do much more to rebuild his reputation and trust amongst his own cabinet and the wider population.

In a recent survey we conducted with senior HR folk, it is clear that this is an issue permeating beyond the world of politics and throughout organisations up and down the country with only 17% of respondents believing that the behaviours of senior leaders aligned with their desired culture. In other words, there is an incongruence between what leaders say about culture and what they do.

And so again: leadership behaviour is not fulfilling the rhetoric. And the consequences for organisations and culture?

  • People follow what leaders do rather than what they say – culture reflects what is experienced rather than what is aspired,
  • Inconsistency between leaders’ words and deeds leads to confusion, erosion of trust and a sense of unfairness – “one rule for me, another rule for others”, and
  • Purpose, culture, and values become tarnished instruments of management-speak that can be frequently jettisoned for other priorities, and hence not to be taken seriously.

However, this survey finding is worth examining further. Do I believe 83% of leaders are consciously choosing to mislead those they lead? From the many leaders I have met and worked with; I would say this is mostly not the case. For example, from the same survey 78% of responders recognised the importance that culture has on an organisation’s performance. It’s clear leaders rationally get why culture is important.

So, what is really going on? How has this significant leadership and cultural blind spot arisen?

  • Firstly, are leaders aware of the values and behaviours they should be role modelling, do they understand the significance and are they capable of consistently living them?
  • Secondly, do leaders get sufficient feedback on their behaviour and does this drive the necessary personal reflection and learning?
  • Thirdly, do leadership teams focus on the behaviours they need today or those that are needed to take their organisations into the future – and how are the tensions between the two managed?
  • Finally, do leaders recognise the warning signs of “do as I say, not as I do” – and what this might suggest about their relationship with the people they lead?

Underpinning these four questions are perhaps two deeper considerations. The first three questions I have highlighted, could be seen as developmental in nature and therefore leaders can learn how to become more self-aware of their actions, supported to recognise and change patterns of behaviour, and capable of resolving tensions between conflicting values. These are all key ingredients of effective leadership development and coaching that can be oriented towards leaders becoming better skilled in culture change. Perhaps, Boris could learn some lessons?

There is, however, in my view something else that might be going on under the surface – and this may be a more cautionary message for leaders. The psychologist Dacher Keltner identified a pattern of behaviour called the Power Paradox. He proposes that power has a self-defeating quality that leaders must beware of. With power comes the proclivity to abuse it; to lose touch with what others feel, to disrespect people, and to demean. This blind spot explains how humility, empathy, respect, and generosity can deteriorate causing leaders to behave in ways that fall short. Their actions may or may not be abusive in themselves; however, “do as I say, not as I do” constitutes a warning sign to leaders that they may be losing touch with the people they lead.

So, what can Boris and other leaders do?

To start with, develop the self-awareness to recognise that how one goes about work as a leader and the actions one takes, has a critical underpinning to the ability of society or organisations to trust, cooperate and to function together effectively. Leaders’ actions that are aligned and congruent to deep values like “probity” set an important tone. This requires open dialogue to continually achieve. It means that the principle of “do what you say and say what you do” is meaningful and will not be sacrificed cheaply. What is not so clear, is that once trust is lost how can it be regained? In this regard often apologies are not enough and once more it is likely to be only achieved through accepting responsibility and through how one conducts oneself going forward. “Deeds not words” declared Emeline Pankhurst – surely, a maxim for leaders and even Boris to live by.

To find out more how we can help with leadership development, please get in touch.

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