Two Key Teachable Leadership Lessons from Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ Scandal
For leaders to be effective and have the support of those they are leading in any context, they must respect the rules they put in place, and those people. This is something the leader of the United Kingdom failed to do.
What is Partygate?
An official report carried out by Sue Gray, a British civil servant, confirmed the rumours that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, had attended sixteen gatherings at his home, his government office and other government offices. This was between May 2020 and April 2021, a time when the rest of the nation was in lockdown. The report detailed that Johnson drunkenly enjoyed the company of his wife and co-workers. The public were not permitted to even visit their dying relatives.
- Rulemaking and rule breaking
Generally, leaders make rules. They are expected to lead by example. In many contexts, such as governing a country or a business, regulations are essential foundations. Without them, costly errors could be made at best and situations could spiral dangerously out of control at worst.
When COVID-19 first rocked the world, the Prime Minister refused to organise any kind of system. He advocated for herd immunity. When it was clear that this was killing thousands of Britons every day, he had no choice but to declare a national lockdown. Many countries had done this sooner, leading to much smaller death tolls. The lockdown restrictions were met with resistance at times; however, they were widely appreciated and seen as essential to keep people safe.
It is not the employment of rules which makes a leader problematic in this situation. Rather, it is a leader’s willingness to believe that the rules do not apply to them. Johnson examples a grave lack of integrity to perceive himself as above the rules he approved of being set, and in turn, above the people following him.
Life-ruining fines were being given to poor people for doing the same thing as Johnson, if not less severe. It seems utterly abhorrent then, that he was the mastermind behind the notion of fining citizens who broke lockdown rules. How can you punish your people for doing the same thing as you? This was the general discourse around his leadership at the time. People saw how corrupt it was to do such a thing and called for his resignation, wherein lies the lesson for leaders.
If you imagine the Partygate scandal in a business context, it is parallel to a CEO threatening to fire worker if they engage in behaviour against company policy, only it is behaviour that the CEO engages in themselves. It is no surprise that the news was met with such rage. A historic 148 of his MPs voted against the Prime Minister in a vote of no-confidence over Partygate. His approval ratings amongst the public dropped from a meagre +33.1 in March to an even worse +6.6 post-Partygate. Nobody believes in a leader who cannot follow the rules they set. However, Johnson clung onto power, refusing to be held accountable.
Johnson is a leader who is responsible for his people in the same way other leaders are. For example, CEOs must decide how they want their organisations to operate – what is expected of their workers and themselves. Religious leaders look to their faith and find a belief system and sets of values that they and others are inclined to follow. When leaders make rules, they are expected to follow them. This should especially be the case when the rules are rooted in the safety of others. Making it worse is when there is a feeling of ideological purism to following the rules, as there was with COVID-19; if you are anti-vax, if you are anti-mask, you face judgement. People will be a lot less incentivised to abide by a set of rules their leaders cannot even follow.
2. Taking responsibility
Not following rules that you implore everyone else to adhere to is a blatant display of disrespect for the people who follow you. Your leadership capabilities will be questioned with that lack of integrity. In this instance, Boris Johnson’s situation may have been improved if he accepted responsibility.
If Johnson held himself accountable for his wrongdoings, it may have suggested he possesses qualities valued in a leader: empathy, remorse, intelligence. There were even certain members of the public who believed he still deserved yet another chance. People lamented that he is human and made a mistake (… sixteen times). However, Johnson shrugged off accountability.
He lied, claiming at first to have never attended any parties. When that was proven to be false, he claimed to have not known he had broken the laws he had put in place. He pinned the blame on civil servants. He allowed one-woman, former Press Secretary Allegra Stratton, to be a scapegoat and resign over a party attended by over forty people. As a leader, how can you happily let the people serving you take the blame for your actions? He attended the party himself. He was the person at the party in the most powerful position, Prime Minister.
Johnson’s outrage at being held to account can be summarised by his demand that Labour Party leader Keir Starmer let go off his “sanctimonious obsession” of ‘Partygate’. It is Starmer’s job to challenge the Conservative Party leader on his deceitful behaviour. Johnson showed more outrage at being held accountable for his actions than he did being disappointed in himself for executing those actions. Instead of looking internally at what he did wrong, he criticised his critics for being moralising and compulsive.
When a leader lies about doing wrong, it makes their people question their ability to trust in their leader. Too much dishonesty has led to fifty-two members of Johnson’s government resigning from it over the last few days. Not only were the public affronted by Johnson’s deceit and terrible leadership, but his own cronies, too.
It is crucial that when leaders make mishaps, they hold their hands up and own up to what they have done, rather than try and manipulate their way out of the situation.
Johnson’s handling of Partygate is a teachable moment for all leaders. Beyond it being a reckoning force in Johnson losing his job, it enraged lots of people who put their trust and faith in him as a figurehead. The teachable lessons from this scandal for leaders are:
Leaders are not rule exempt: As a leader, you cannot set rules (or laws) and break them yourself but punish others for doing the same as you. It is disrespectful to the people following you, it lacks integrity and it will come back to bite you.
Always take accountability for your mistakes and errors in judgement. Holding your hands up and admitting to messing up is better than scapegoating others or lying to manipulate your way out of a situation. Traits such as dishonesty and unaccountability are not admired in a leader, as can be seen with Britain’s leader’s recent ousting.