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Nicki Davey

Saltbox Training & Events


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Lessons from Boris Johnson’s reign: Why the world needs a new type of leader

Why leaders should ignore outdated ideas of what constitutes good leadership skills, and should instead adopt the more balanced, Yin-Yang approach.

Before reading any further, please just take a minute to go to Google Images and enter “Leader” in the search box. Take a few minutes to scroll down through the images. What do you notice? What impressions of leadership do the images give?  You’re probably thinking along the following lines:

  • Mostly white men
  • Very corporate
  • Lots of pointing, arrows, goals, direction
  • Leader is separate or different from the rest of the group
  • Leader is at the front or the top

What does this tell us? In our culture, leadership is portrayed as being very white, male, heroic, self-reliant, out in front, assertive, or dominant. And it’s not just Google images – in history, literature, art, and the media, the dominant image of leadership is masculine, white, middle class, heterosexual, and physically able.

People’s perceptions of what a leader should be like are shaped by these portrayals. Those who want to be leaders or are already in leadership positions adopt these ‘masculine’ behaviours because they think this is how they are supposed to be, and ‘followers’ seek out leaders who display these qualities.

The dominant image of leadership is masculine, white, middle class, heterosexual, and physically able.

We see this played out everywhere – in community groups; charities; the public sector; businesses; and, most notably, in government.

Why did so many people consider Boris Johnson to be a good leader? Why did they overlook his ruthless ambition and self-serving egotism? Because they saw someone who fit their perception of a good leader – white, male, decisive, bold, and someone who was ‘getting things done’.

Even after he had lied over and over again, created a workplace culture of abuse and sexual harassment, made self-serving decisions to benefit himself and his cronies rather than people and planet, and disregarded the interests of his party and the nation in favour of his own popularity – there are still people who consider him a good leader for his ‘heroic’ efforts in relation to Brexit, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and/or Covid vaccinations.

Research shows that if leaders show self-confidence, people tend to misinterpret this as competence, and when they speak, the strength of their verbal delivery influences people's judgement of them as a leader more than the content of what they say or their performance record.

New times call for new leaders

However, what the world needs now is a deep and radical change in leadership perceptions and behaviours, so that we value and embrace more ‘feminine’ leadership traits such as humility, compassion, collaboration, understanding, and emotional intelligence (this useful short video on the power of quiet leadership gives a good explanation of this).

Most people tend to connect the term masculine with men and feminine with women, however people of all genders and none can display both masculine and feminine behaviours. Therefore, to move away from assumptions about gender it is more helpful to talk about Yin and Yang qualities and traits rather than masculine and feminine.

What the world needs now is a deep and radical change in leadershipm perceptions and behaviours.

In order to tackle the challenges of the 21st century – including the climate emergency, loss of biodiversity, gender and racial injustice, and increasing extreme inequality to name a few – we need a fundamental shift in how we relate to ourselves, each other and the living Earth, together with an associated paradigm shift in how we perceive leaders.

If we are to create a world where there is compassion, justice, sustainability and regeneration for people and planet rather than consumption and profit, then communities, organisations, businesses and governments need to seek and develop leaders across the gender spectrum who create balance and harmony between their Yin and Yang.

Yin-Yang leadership

With the Yin-Yang approach, neither one nor the other is more important, and neither can exist in its best form without the other. We can listen to everyone’s views and understand their experiences and perspectives better (Yin) when we set a clear intention and purpose for these conversations (Yang).

Furthermore, we’re able to show more compassion to others (Yin) when we set clear boundaries to protect our own wellbeing (Yang). We can also create a more compelling vision for the future (Yang) when it is informed through reflecting and learning from the past (Yin).

Most organisations still have a long way to go to embrace a heart-led leadership style which is built on co-operation, sharing, and empowerment and which prioritises wellbeing of people and planet above commercial gain.

So what can they do to transform leadership at a local level in order to make a positive difference in the wider world? The following are some important steps to consider:

  1. Developing leadership competencies and models which embrace and balance both Yin and Yang behaviours and qualities.
  2. Developing recruitment processes which actively look for and value Yin traits and enable those who display these to shine.
  3. Implementing leadership development programmes which challenge traditional leadership narratives, focus on self-awareness and inner development, and help leaders to understand and balance their Yin and Yang (more on this below).
  4. Adopting work practices, rewards systems, structures, and behaviours that reflect, support and promote Yin values and behaviours, as well as Yang.
  5. Improving leaders’ wellbeing: when people are stressed and burnt out they make short-term rather than long-term decisions, and struggle to embrace or generate new ideas and solutions.
  6. Encouraging and enabling everyone to be a leader regardless of their job role (leadership as a practice, not a position) so that they can become activists and changemakers both within and outside of the organisation.
  7. Creating a work culture where people are encouraged to engage with nature and look to nature’s principles for solutions and lessons (this short, beautifully animated video about Nature at Work explains why this is so important and effective.)

Most leadership development programmes are designed to create leaders who conform and are loyal to the existing organisational norms and culture rather than challenging them.

Leadership development programmes should encourage people to challenge not conform.

Leadership development practitioners therefore need to break this pattern through designing programmes which:

  • Develop a foundation of inner awareness (self-awareness, authenticity, humility, and a willingness to be vulnerable) which guides and shapes leaders’ external actions.
  • Enable leaders to reject traditional patriarchal systems built around competition, hierarchy and power and embrace a loving, compassionate, co-operative approach to leadership.
  • Equip leaders with the courage to do the right thing, even when it may not be what the organisation wants or expects.
  • Encompass a systems approach so that people understand the interconnectedness of everything and recognise their own interdependence with the rest of the universe.
  • Enable leaders to internalise their learning at a physical, emotional and spiritual level rather than just an intellectual level.
    In my experience, the most powerful and effective way to do this is through engaging people with nature, which enables them to connect with and embrace their instinctive, intuitive, animal self, making them more open to new ways of seeing and doing things, and helping them find a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

We are at a crisis point for humanity and our fragile planet. The deep and transformational shift in how we all see ourselves, others and the world around us requires leaders at all levels in society to generate this shift, and organisations and businesses are key to this.

We all have a responsibility to question our own perceptions of what constitutes good leadership and to balance our own leadership Yin and Yang.

As learning or leadership development professionals, we must also use our own sphere of influence to facilitate this shift by supporting, promoting, and developing the sort of leadership that is now required for a better world and a brighter future.

2 Responses

  1. Nicki,

    I was so sorry to read this, Nicki. Why sorry? Because when I first took over a role in learning and development nearly forty years ago, we were working on similar approaches to management and leadership.
    Boris Johnson may be an archetypal leader, but surely of an extinct model? and not even one demonstrating a ‘command and control’ approach.
    We’ve still much to do to improve approaches to leadership in both public and private sectors. It’s more important now than ever.

  2. Uno sguardo molto
    Uno sguardo molto interessante sulla leadership moderna. Ma non credo che Johnson sia così inadatto. Abbiamo ancora molte lezioni da imparare prima di creare un leader moderno

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Nicki Davey


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