Where is Boris Johnson? When and Why it Matters that Leaders Show Up in a Crisis

Tomkins, Leah (2020). Where is Boris Johnson? When and Why it Matters that Leaders Show Up in a Crisis. Leadership, 16(3)

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715020919657


“Now, more than at any time in our recent history, we will be judged by our capacity for compassion.” Rishi Sunak, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, 20th March 2020.

In this piece for the journal’s ‘Leading Questions’, I draw on an ethics of care and compassion to address a question that has been asked almost daily in UK politics over the past weeks and months, namely: Where is Boris Johnson? Johnson is a leader with a long-standing reputation for being selective about whether and when he shows up. On 16th March 2020, as the severity of the coronavirus finally seemed to register, Johnson agreed to start holding daily press briefings, bringing his previous track-record and apparent instinct for no-shows into sharp relief. Through the prism of the psychoanalytic caring leader, I reflect on some of the explanations for, and implications of, his absences, arguing that they do not always have the same function or effect. Some absences may be politically astute, as a way of promoting an anti-establishment message and/or reassuring his constituents of their own competence and efficacy. Other absences are decidedly risky, because they send a message that he does not care. In times of crisis, the scales of separation versus proximity - absence versus presence - tip differently to normal, and leaders who appear not to care risk triggering especially powerful anxieties about betrayal and abandonment. When it is impossible for us to be carefree, leaders must avoid being perceived or experienced as careless.

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