Poor Boris Johnson – a life spent anticipating leadership, guiding Britain through hard times, and now he’s just making his own, lone journey. Whatever happens in the next few days, whatever the outcome, he will have faced death alone, as we all do. Hopefully death will have turned away, this time.
And, meanwhile, if you believe what you read in the press, we’re all wondering where our leader is, and how we can manage without him.
Since he was diagnosed with the infection we’ve needed (it seems) to be reassured that he wasn’t incapacitated at all, that it was business as usual, that he was still in command. Even when first in hospital he wasn’t allowed just to be thought of as being ill, falling back, maybe even feeling low or disorientated. He had to be on top of his job, in good spirits, or else (implicitly) what would happen to Britain? When it finally couldn’t be portrayed as ‘business as usual’, there was still an odd fudge about power. Great pains were taken to say he was still ‘making all the big decisions’ – even if this meant they had to be postponed a while.
Clearly, reliance on ‘the great leader’ is thought to persist, as if it were the king, or a ‘President’ (as modern democracies inhabit this archetype) – the one legitimate ruler, who no-one can, or should, replace in their lifetime. And this will make it very hard for him, and us.
This view of decision making, for finding our way through crisis, does away with considered, technical, and shared appraisal of a difficult situation, based on the evidence. It pushes us away from a view of leadership as always delegated, adaptive, pragmatic and relational.
It is highly unlikely that Mr Johnson will now bounce back as if nothing happened, and even if it were possible, it would probably not be in his best interests. Collective cabinet responsibility will have to return, and cabinet decision making may need also to become more transparent, and less the province of particular ‘personalities’,
At present, in all walks of life, we need to find ways to make decisions collectively, and across all ‘levels’ of our systems – and value this. Information from ‘the front line’ needs to pass up to managers and leaders – and not just as complaint and criticism. Cautious, collective cabinet responsibility, informed by facts, evidence, and the wisdom of others, isn’t just a stop gap until the leader is back in place –it’s how things should be done, and needs to be celebrated and strengthened. The process needs to be attended to in its own right, so that it can be informed by, and attentive and responsive to, the experience of others, and of us all.
But back to the pronouncements of our leader. When Boris, clearly unwell, made a point of saying ‘there IS such a thing a society’, it was a thoughtful, and generous, recantation. I, for one, heard it with gratitude, and unexpected tenderness.