It was a momentous occasion; history in the making.  The Ukraine president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, addressing the US Congress in March this year, made a gut-wrenching plea for additional support for his war-ravaged country. 

Since the Russian invasion thrust this former actor into the unexpected role of wartime leader, President Zelenskyy has been praised for his courage, steadfast resistance to oppression and open authenticity. In the face of the unimaginable horror of war, he has become a commanding presence on a global stage.  His leadership style is one that is being examined and compared to that of Churchill, Luther King Jr and Ghandi.

However, in what might be thought of as an example of needless pettiness, former GOP congressional candidate, Peter Schiff tweeted his displeasure at Zelenskyy’s choice of attire for the occasion.  “I understand times are hard, but doesn’t the President of the Ukraine own a suit?” he tweeted in critique of the T-shirt wearing speaker.

While the tweet drew considerable backlash for nitpicking Zelenskyy, it does raise the issue of how leaders are seen and how some, often those in power, believe leaders should look.  The matter demands deeper thought than dismissing criticism of fashion preferences in the face of the brutality of war. Schiff’s follow up comments had the look of a man who had hit rock bottom, but implausibly, had started to dig. “It’s like, I’m just watching it and expressing a thought I had in real time,” he said. “I’m sure that other people, though they won’t admit it, might of (sic) been thinking the same thing.”

Let’s unpack this then. Schiff’s comments, tweeted based on thoughts in real time, suggested that wearing a T-shirt isn’t statesmanlike and is disrespectful to Zelenskyy’s audience. Schiff goes on to reveal that he thinks that others might have had similar reactions.  And the truth of this, is that he’s probably right.  It’s very likely that others, witnessing the address to Congress also had similar thoughts; leaders should wear a suit.  Extending the thought then, ‘how can one be taken seriously as a leader if not wearing a suit?’  Or, ‘not wearing a suit is disrespectful as a leader.’ 

This is bias in action.  Some might call this implicit bias (or unconscious bias) but it’s bias just the same. This is a real time, clearly expressed view of what goes on in the heads of some people every day.  It’s just that Schiff, for some peculiar reason, decided to broadcast it to the world via social media.

But why does this matter?  Without the aim of drawing attention from the horrific events continuing to ravage Ukraine, this matters because the bias that was aimed at Mr Zelenskyy, is the same sort of bias aimed at people who do not ‘look’ like a leader in other contexts. Opinions like Schiff’s are not unique and are embedded in thoughts and actions of many people and in the processes and structures of many organisations.

That is, people have a picture in their head about what a leader should look like, they have a fixed view about how that leader might speak and act and behave.  They think that wearing a suit is more appropriate as it communicates respect for the audience and commands respect in return and that wearing a t-shirt, even in the middle of a humanitarian and geopolitical crisis, is inappropriate for a world leader.  But is it?

Looking at this outrage more broadly, these sorts of beliefs preserve a lack of diversity in government and business and clearly show the issue that ‘thoughts in real time’ prevent people from moving from the traditional ‘look’ of a leader.  Put simply, deep-seated biased ‘thoughts in real time’ continue to lock women, people from minority cultural backgrounds, neurodiverse people and people from low socio-economic backgrounds out of leadership roles, and more tragically, push them out of roles that might prepare them for leadership roles regardless of their capabilities because they may not look like the traditional picture of a leader.  And our businesses, parliaments and communities are poorer for it. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Volodymyr Zelensky walk through central Kyiv after their talks (IMAGE SOURCE, REUTERS)

Now, had it not been for Boris Johnson’s surprise trip to Ukraine this piece would have ended here.  It’s a widely known fact that the British Prime Minister has high hopes to mirror Sir Winston Churchill as an admired leader.  But in a glorious contrast that examines this matter from another perspective, Mr Johnson has reinforced the thoughts here about bias rooted in the traditional idea of what leadership looks like. 

Arriving in war-ravaged Kyiv in a suit was out of place, but to those that believe this a good thing, ‘thank goodness, he looks like a leader!’ Here’s a man, who has long known for his scruffy, untidy appearance but who has rarely strayed from the standard business suit, clearly enjoying the chance to escape the recent political commotion coming from various failings including the ‘Partygate’ scandal, mishandling of the pandemic response to the point of illegality, accusations of misleading parliament and lying to the Queen.  This in addition to deep public criticism of his capabilities as a leader from his own Tory ranks suggest a man unfit for leadership. But he’s almost always seen in a suit, adding to the traditional idea of what a leader wears. At least, Schiff might argue, he looks like a head of government even if, it would be argued by many, that he’s lacking in the capabilities of a modern leader.  

While one could argue that Boris Johnson was destined for leadership, it might not be because of his capabilities but due to his considerable privilege and access to opportunity that people who don’t wear suits are less likely to be offered.

I’m sure Peter Schiff would be applauding Prime Minister Johnson’s wardrobe choices, and I guess we should count ourselves lucky Boris didn’t turn up in camo gear!

The University of Tasmania’s newly developed Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses explore current issues like changing ideas of leadership, inclusion and embedded bias. Critiquing current affairs through multiple lenses tests both theory and practice to afford students a more critical view of how we operate in a revised ‘new business as usual'.

Find out more about our MBA courses here

Dr Terri Simpkin is an Associate Professor of Management and the MBA Director at the University of Tasmania.

Image Credits: Reuters