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Theresa May and Brexit: leadership style and performance

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British Politics Aims and scope


Novel, unstructured, and high-stakes situations, such as Brexit, have been found to magnify the impact of personality on the performance of high-level political office. This article uses quantitative content analysis of Theresa May’s verbal output to develop a profile of her characteristic approach to politics and leadership, and utilizes this profile to further our understanding of her actions during the Brexit negotiations. Using the well-established Leadership Trait Analysis technique, the article links May’s political personality—her tendency toward black-and-white thinking, her high belief in her ability to control events, and her relative lack of facility with the political tools of influence and persuasion—to her guidance of the Brexit process. While avoiding a reductionist approach, subscribing neither to an “all agency” or “no agency” account of the prime minister’s role in Brexit, the research does conclude that May’s personality was a significant factor in shaping the course of Brexit during her time in office.

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  1. Dividing the text into quarter year segments allows for two tests of the stability of traits over time. First, standard deviations can be reported (see table 2). The lower the standard deviation, the more stable the trait. Second, a correlation between time (quarter year no. 1, 2, 3 etc., beginning when May took office) and the trait results tests whether her scores rose or fell in some systematic way over her time in office. No correlation for any trait is significant, indicating (along with the small standard deviations) that her trait scores were stable over her time in office.

  2. Data from Social Science Automation, Inc.

  3. Researchers in the LTA tradition adopt different approaches to the qualitative interpretation—and hence behavioral implications—of the quantitative scores. Some regard any score above or below the reference group mean as representing a high or low result and carrying the resulting behavioral implications. Others, including the originator of the approach, Margaret G. Hermann, prefer to regard only scores more than one standard deviation above or below a reference group mean as high or low. The potential difficulty this creates is that the vast majority of world leaders are therefore, given normally distributed data, labeled as average on most personality traits. In response, the argot adopted in this article, of the “lean low” and “lean high” descriptor for scores more than one half standard deviation from the reference group mean, was developed. Arguably the most significant test of the validity of this approach is whether the descriptive labels comport to the actual behavior of the leader—hence the in-depth qualitative examination of May’s actions in this article. The only score of May’s for which this is important is her need for power: − 0.67 standard deviations below the reference group mean and thus characterized as “lean low”.


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Correspondence to Stephen Benedict Dyson.

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Dyson, S.B. Theresa May and Brexit: leadership style and performance. Br Polit 19, 213–233 (2024).

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