How cultural differences shape the perception of leadership styles
The Brits have had no mercy for Donald Trump. Thousands of them took to the street to protest against his visit to the UK. The pictures of the balloon depicting him as a huge orange baby have travelled around the world. A 16ft sculpture of him on the toilet takes centre stage in Trafalgar Square. The Brits hate his rudeness which goes directly against the British etiquette and culture of politeness. Trump is positively perceived by only 21% of the British population, versus 72% for previous president Barack Obama. 
Paradoxically, it seems like the forthcoming leadership contest might make the British equivalent of Trump the next Prime Minister of the UK. Boris Johnson, like Trump, loves a good controversy and does not hesitate to divide to conquer. The similarity in their approach even got them depicted passionately kissing on a Bristol mural. Boris’ comments comparing women wearing a burqa with letterboxes, a year ago, were suspected to bolster his grassroots support. To some extent, Johnson employs the same tactics as his US counterpart: he is rude and offensive for the sake of being noticed, presents himself as a ‘truth-teller’ and has an inflated sense of ego.
Yet, despite those key similarities in the leadership styles of Johnson and Trump, the Brits seem to overwhelmingly favour the former, to the point of being about to make him Prime Minister.
Johnson always understood this contrast, and this week he decided to avoid meeting Trump on a one-to-one basis, knowing it would harm his chances in the leadership contest and hurt his national popularity. In 2015, he called Trump an ‘ignorant’. Boris is making good use of the adage ‘the enemies of my enemy are my friends’ to avoid the courtesy stigma he could suffer from associating himself with the political leader who shares his divisive style.
The paradox in the opposite perception of two similar leadership styles is striking. One key difference is the manner the two politicians use to be controversial. Trump appears as simple-minded, while the controversial comments made by Johnson are layered with more sophistication which makes him look more cultured than his US counterpart. In a nutshell, the British people see Johnson’s divisiveness as humorous, distinct and sophisticated, while they see Trump’s perspective on political matters as vulgar and basic. This is all about how Boris’ supporters see themselves versus the way they perceive Trump’s supporters. But in fact, if there is a divergence in the perception of those two politicians, there is much less difference with regards to their political communication and strategy. In the end, both Johnson and Trump sell simplistic solutions to complex problems, and present the global landscape as a zero-sum game, ignoring the reality of the position of their country and their people in a broader context.
We need to be aware of how communication strategies framed around conflict and disputes are used to manipulate audiences. Trump has become the one Brits love to hate, while Boris is the hater many of them love. No doubt, the dramaturgy of their relationship will be further used to improve their respective popularity at home. Johnson will attack Trump to raise his popularity with Trump’s haters, but will certainly rub his supporters in the right way shortly afterwards. In a world of opportunistic political strategies, the public opinion seems to have a short memory, giving unashamed leaders a chance to have it both ways.
Ben Laker (@drbenlaker) is a Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School, University of Reading, and a global affairs commentator for media outlets including Bloomberg and Sky News. He specialises in Brexit and advises governments and global corporations around the world.
Thomas Roulet (@thomroulet) is a Senior Lecturer in Organisation Theory at the Judge Business School and a Fellow of Girton College, both at the University of Cambridge. He has provided sociological analyses on different aspects of Brexit and leadership in various media outlets (e.g. the Telegraph, Le Monde).