Leaders by definition lead. However, in order for that to be supported by the rest of us, there has to be consensus and trust.
So what happens when collective trust is broken at a time of national emergency?
At heart, I’m an evolutionary psychologist. In short that means that I believe that the way we think, react and behave has largely been hardwired into us over many hundreds of thousands of years.
In our current form, as Homo sapiens we’ve been in existence for around 85,000 years. Now that’s an incredibly short amount of time, especially when you consider that we evolved from our early hominid predecessors between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. As a consequence of this evolutionary hangover, we are hardwired to react in certain ways, often without thinking or knowing why. You can call it instinct; I’ll call it evolutionary psychology.
We’re a social bunch too, because being social is a fabulous survival and reproduction strategy. So when farming started around 12,000 years ago, we stopped roaming and started settling into communities, becoming even more social. As an aside, and for those interested in these things, Social Learning and Social Identity Theory, also goes a fair way to explaining brand loyalty and the identification of self via our consumer decision making.
So with all this hardwired inescapable cognition running around, here’s my current worry…
When Covid-19 arrived, it did so like an attacking tribe from the next village. So far from panicking, we actually reverted back to hardwired responses and came together to fight the threat in any way we could.
Like any national emergency, where you would expect individuals to look after themselves and their families, panic and turn their backs on those around them, quite the opposite happens. We get an emergent sense of shared identity and actually come together for the benefit of the wider society. We move away from a sense of “I” toward a focus on “Us” as we start to act for the greater good of the community.
This sense of ‘Us (society) & Them (Covid-19)’ is incredibly important in helping us all come together for the common good.
Unfortunately, it’s also extremely fragile too.
It only works when we are all pulling together. The Government’s role here is to bolster this feeling of “Us”. That’s why you heard Churchill state “We shall fight on the beaches” – he deliberately uses ‘we’ in many speeches, because the great man realised that we really were all in it together.
After all, ‘You shall fight them on the beaches’ doesn’t quite sound as rousing!
So instead of hiding from enemy aircraft, we are now out in the streets applauding the amazing work of our new “front-line” troops.
Instead of digging for victory, we are now doing our bit by helping the elderly and vulnerable when and where we can. Instead of or signing-up, we are now sticking to abnormal rules that have been commonly accepted by all.
The problem is though, that if you take the tried and tested dynamic of ‘Us & Them’ and you break it, then the trouble starts.
If the Government has one rule for society and one rule for themselves, then they will inevitably lose the trust of those who placed them in power in the first place. The ‘Us’ remains the public, but the ‘Them’ is in danger of becoming the Government itself. Especially when Boris suggests that, via the support of Dominic Cummings, it’s ok for individual urges to trump the idea of this shared identity.
So the protection of one individual from within the prime minister’s inner-circle leads to a large-scale loss of trust by the rest of us. The feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’ is now increasingly questioned. Moreover, there could be a growing unwillingness to comply with what we are, or will be, asked to do as we feel that our leaders are no longer ‘in it with us’.
We were all in this together, it was us verse the virus. However, one man seems to have shattered that dynamic, breaking the trust of the tribe.
Why then would Boris allow this to happen?
Boris must realise that, without the trust of the tribe, his time as leader has already ended. So that makes me wonder what’s going on in Number 10 and in the PM’s head.
In much talked about domestic abuse, one of the many possible explanations for people remaining in abusive situations, is that they report having almost no alternative to that destructive relationship. I’m certainly not being flippant here, but abuse comes in many forms and Cummings has been widely reported to be ‘difficult to work with’ and ‘extremely difficult to work for’.
I’m not pretending to know Boris Johnson either, but it is a widely reported fact that Boris hates one-to-one conflict. So the two players here, one who thrives on, and one who hates, conflict could be the beginning of a hypothesis as to why no action is the only action Boris can take.
For a man who hates conflict, facing the daily barrage for the media must be a high-stress environment. Perhaps it’s why he so very often delegates his appearances to other ministers, or choses not to take part in interviews or debates at all.
With this in mind, could keeping Cummings be as simple and as absurd as our leader believing that the massive internal upheaval and the consequential conflict sacking Cummings will create is just too much to cope at the moment?
Far better to ride it out from the safety of Number 10, telling everyone to move on from the topic and refusing to engage in discussion. Preferring to cling to the jagged snake infested rock that is Cummings, in the way a child clings to a teddy bear in times of stress. After all, won’t Dominic get him through this current storm in the same way as he delivered him Brexit and the premiership in the first place?
Perhaps a life without his rock is more daunting than life outside of Number 10, no matter what that cost him and us.