Man Meets Moment – Cuomo in a Time of Crisis

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who in the 1960s and ‘70s played a prominent role in America’s intellectual discourse. He was best known first for his theory of human development, from childhood through old age, and second for writing two groundbreaking biographies, one of Martin Luther, the other of Mahatma Gandhi.

The two biographies were psychoanalytical in their approach – and psychosocial. The former centered on the development of the two individuals; the latter on their development in relation to the contexts within which they lived. Erikson theorized that between Luther and his moment in time, and between Gandhi and his moment in time, was a singularly fortuitous fit. In both cases the men met their moments in ways that served them as leaders, and their followers, sublimely well.

Erikson was similarly eloquent on how central to leaders were their ties to their followers. And on how central to followers were their ties to their leaders. “Whatever motivation or conflict followers may have in common as they join a leader, and are joined together by him” has to be studied, Erikson argued, in relation both to their personal lives, their lives as individuals, and to their collective lives, their lives as members of communities.

Though for a half century the leadership industry has focused on leaders virtually exclusively, Erikson was not the only expert who insisted it made no sense to focus on leaders without simultaneously focusing on their followers. Another was Bruce Mazlish, the psychoanalytically trained historian who in 1989 wrote that, “The leader does not exist, fully formed, before the encounter with the group he is to lead…. The leader discovers a self … in the course of interacting with the chosen group.” At the same time were others who expanded the canvas by stressing the importance of context – among the most obvious examples, that of post-World War II Britain. Though for all of Winston Churchill’s greatness as a wartime leader, not long after the last battle was fought he was pushed from his perch. Churchill had not changed – but the context had.

Anyone familiar with my work knows that in these matters I stand on the shoulders of a small number of my predecessors. Some years ago I started never to write anymore, speak anymore, or teach anymore about “leadership,” but only about what I came to call the “leadership system.” The leadership system is deceptively simple. It has three parts – leaders, followers, and contexts – each of which is equally important and each of which is both dependent on, and independent of, the other two.

The systemic approach comes to mind now, with the emergence of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as America’s leader primus inter pares – America’s leader who has emerged since the corona virus crisis as first among equals. To the surprise of those who watched him over the years, Cuomo has come, almost overnight, to occupy a prominent place among Americans desperate for a leader who seems to them to be bold, bright, and brave enough to navigate the roiling waters of this existential virus crisis.

Let me be clear: Cuomo did not emerge from obscurity. He is scion of a prominent political family. He held a cabinet post in the administration of President Bill Clinton. He served as Attorney General of the State of New York. And he has been governor of the State of New York for nearly a decade. Still, his was not exactly a household name, certainly not at the national level. Additionally, his popularity among the Democratic establishment was, shall we say, minimal as opposed to maximal. Finally, within the great city of New York he was known mainly for two things: his wretched neglect of the all-important city subway system and his wretched relationship with the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. In short, while Cuomo was widely regarded as smart, he was neither widely loved nor widely admired. Until now.

Again, Cuomo has not changed. But the situation has – hence have the needs of his followers. Americans, New Yorkers at the epicenter, are caught, trapped, locked in a pandemic. A pandemic that was not only unanticipated but unimagined. A pandemic that has triggered high anxiety and even abject fear. A pandemic that is a breach into which Cuomo has stepped.

This is a man who has met his moment. This is a man who however he was seen before the crisis, during the crisis is being seen completely differently. He holds daily press briefings that are hailed as master classes in public communication. He posts facts and figures that are praised as master classes in truth-telling. He radiates uncertainty and confidence simultaneously; he alternates being angry and frustrated with being calm and composed. He has, as noted in the Financial Times, “transformed himself into an unlikely father of the nation as it faces one of its gravest modern moments.”

In consequence of the excellence of his performance, Cuomo’s followers have morphed from clear-eyed constituents into starry-eyed fans. They share text messages swooning over his latest appearances. They compare him to the best of group therapists, a person in a position of authority who can sooth their savage breasts. And they fantasize about his future – preferably in the White House, having as seamlessly as bloodlessly deposed the Democratic heir apparent, Joe Biden. No surprise that this week a Siena College poll of New Yorkers found a thumping 87% of respondents approved of the governor’s performance during this current crisis.

Cuomo continues to deny that he has any interest whatsoever in running for the presidency. But his legions of followers can dream, can’t they? Meantime they testify vividly to the veracity of what social scientists call “the fundamental attribution error.” What exactly is this error? “People’s inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions, together with their failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behavior.”

Sources of Quotes:

Erik Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence.

Bruce Mazlish, The Leader and the Led.

Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett, The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology.

Executive Power vs. Expert Influence

Though the heightened attention to leadership is a late twentieth and early twenty-first century phenomenon, in the mid twentieth century were some ground-breaking studies on leadership, particularly in small groups.  One was an article first published in 1959, by John R. P. French, Jr. and Bertram Raven, titled, “The Bases of Social Power.”

The field of leadership has always been plagued by problems of semantics, the article by French and Raven being no exception. Though they take great pains to define their terms, to our ears their definitions sound quaint if not arcane. While initially they focus on two wellsprings of leadership, power and influence, as the title of their piece suggests they settle on “power” as their primary explicator for how some people (leaders) get another people (followers) to do what they, the former, want and intend.   

Though French and Raven wrote there are “undoubtedly many possible bases of power,” they focused on five they found “especially common and important.” Some of these are related to each other, for example the power to reward and to punish usually resides in the same person. Others of these are entirely unrelated, for example legitimate power and expert power might, or they might not, be lodged in one individual. The five bases of power are:

  1. reward power – power derived from the leaders’ ability to reward followers
  2. coercive power – power derived from the fear that failure to follow will result in punishment
  3. legitimate power – power derived from the legitimization of the leader’s position (we usually follow those whose status is higher than ours)
  4. referent power – power derived from the close connection or identification by followers with their leaders
  5. expert power – power derived from some people being perceived to know more, much more, than others     

I, in contrast to French and Raven, have concluded that leaders actually have three different wellsprings from which they can draw: power, authority, and influence. They relate to their five bases of power, but they are not the same. In my 2012 book The End of Leadership, I made these distinctions – with A the leader and B the follower: “Power is defined here as A’s capacity to get B to do whatever A wants, whatever B’s preferences, if necessary, by force. Authority is A’s capacity to get B to do whatever A wants, based on A’s position, status, or rank. And influence is as it sounds: A’s capacity to persuade B to go along with what A wants and intends, of B’s own volition.”

Like many if not most academic fine points, the distinctions to which I refer seem mostly to be just that, academic fine points. But every now and then they play out in the real world in ways that are of paramount importance. In The End of Leadership I argue, as does Mois Naim in his subsequent The End of Power, and Tom Nichols in his subsequent The Death of Expertise, that though what French and Raven called “expert power” is not dead, in the last few decades it has been seriously diminished. More specifically, we tend now not particularly to respect those who know more than do we. Similarly, we tend now not especially to be swayed by those who know more than do we. We incline instead to ignore or even disparage the experts, often in favor of our peers, if not downright to defy them.        

None has characterized – epitomized – this proclivity more blatantly than President Donald Trump. Not for him expert power – or influence. To the contrary: he has reveled throughout his time in office in declaring as loudly as recurrently that he knows more than does anyone else, no matter the endeavor or field of expertise.  The current pandemic has been no exception. Until now.

The conflict between what I call executive power and expert influence has played out for weeks on America’s national stage, specifically between two men: the big, brawling, bullying president, Donald Trump, and the small, smart, sensible doctor and director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci. Though Fauci has been well known among those in the know for decades – in the 1980s he played a pivotal in the AIDS crisis – he became virtually a household name only in the last month. As a result of his many media appearances, during which he relentlessly beats the drum for treating the corona virus with the deadly earnestness, Americans have become all-too familiar with his face, his name, and his demonstrable expertise. Repeatedly Fauci has told the American president and the American people what they did not want to hear.

At every turn Trump fought Fauci’s sounding the alarm about COVID 19. Which led some to predict that Fauci would at any moment be fired. And others to fear that the vitriolic right would one day do him real damage. (A post on Twitter and Facebook claiming that Fauci was part of a secret anti-Trump cabal reportedly reached some 1.5 million people.) But, yesterday, finally, the tide turned. Yesterday, finally, Trump backed down. He actually reversed himself – as much as admitting that he was wrong and Fauci was right. That Fauci was right to insist that for weeks ahead Americans must continue to follow the by now familiar guidelines, including not yet going out more than necessary and not yet returning to work.   

For weeks Fauci and other public health officials have argued that Trump should not relax the guidelines too soon – only to be stonewalled by the president, who in spite of their cautions recently said that by Easter he wanted America’s churches to be “packed.” Why then did Trump finally give in? Why then did executive power finally succumb to expert influence?

Here some reasons:

  • Present information became overwhelmingly convincing. So much data indicating so many Americans already sick, and so many Americans already dead, that even Trump found it impossible to ignore.
  • Future projections became inescapably alarming. So much data predicting that up to 2.2 million Americans could die from the virus if nothing were done to stop it that even Trump found it impossible to ignore.
  • The virus hit home on a personal level. Not only was one of Trump’s friends apparently felled by the virus, increasingly familiar names were succumbing to its sometimes deadly affects. (Country music star Joe Diffie, age 61, died yesterday of corona complications.)
  •  The virus threatens Donald’s Trump’s political future. Though his poll numbers are rising, and while his ostensible competitor for the White House, a man who as I dimly recall is named Joe Biden, remains largely invisible, Trump understands that his handling of the crisis will be the platform he must run on.*
  •  Fear is a powerful motivator. The possible risks of Trump’s continuing to defy the experts were getting to be higher than the possible rewards for nudging the nation to “get back to work.”   
  • Fauci was coming to personify the resistance. He was coming to be widely regarded as a hero whose expertise was beyond question, and whose willingness to judiciously but fearlessly take on the president was greatly admired.   
  • It dawned on the president that though he had power, there is another coin in the realm, influence. Influence, of which Fauci, because of his scientific expertise, has a copious amount – and which seems in the current context to be of great value. Of greater value probably even than power.

In a recent column in USA Today, David Rubenstein wrote that Dr. Anthony Fauci was “without doubt the … leading authority on infectious diseases,” and that in the “world of infectious diseases” he was “the gold standard.” No matter if this is, literally, true. What is demonstrably true is that though he has no power over Trump, Fauci does have influence. Influence that is derived from his expertise which, to go back to French and Raven, is not only in relation to the president but, additionally, according to an absolute standard of excellence. All of which is to point out that even in an era in which expertise has been declared dead, when the context is crisis expertise can, and sometimes does, spring back to life. All of which is similarly to point out that at this moment in time, where Fauci leads Trump follows.


*For explanation of remark about Joe Biden, see my previous post, “Where Have You Gone, Joe Biden? Our Nation Turns its Lonely Eyes to You.”

Where Have You Gone, Joe Biden? Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You.

Joe Biden is slated to be the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. So, at least, I last heard. But for reasons unclear, since the unofficial end of his campaign for the nomination, Biden has effectively disappeared.

OK, he’s not entirely disappeared. Yesterday, for example, he gave CNN’s Jake Tapper an interview. But Biden’s presentation of self was listless beyond belief. He had nothing whatsoever to say that was new and different. And whatever he did say he droned on in dreary monotone. The highlight of the exchange was when Biden coughed into his hands – which left Tapper reminding the former vice president that for now anyway we never cough into our hands and always into our elbow.

The incumbent president is everyday an embarrassment – arguably even a dangerous one. This provides his putative challenger with a perfect opportunity to step into the breach. To show us what he’s made of. To provide the American people with the strongest possible alternative to Donald Trump. But so far anyway, for the last couple of weeks at least, Biden has been inexplicably passive.

No one is stopping Joe Biden from doing anything. So why on a regular basis doesn’t he speak up forcefully and persuasively? Why on a regular basis doesn’t he generate a raft of pertinent policy proposals? Why on a regular basis doesn’t he take direct issue with the president? Why on a regular basis doesn’t he reach out to those individuals, groups, and organizations most directly affected by the virus crisis – such as health care professionals? Why on a regular basis doesn’t he perform visible acts of community kindness?

Where have you gone, Joe Biden?

Leadership, Leadership, Everywhere/A Drop to Drink?

We always want strong leaders. Freud wrote that our “thirst for authority” is natural, even in times of stasis. But in times of crisis this thirst becomes near desperate. In times of crisis we are near desperate to find someone who can lead us out of the dark and into the light.

This more than anything else explains why in recent weeks our usual fixation on leaders has morphed into an aberrant obsession. We are smack in the middle not of one crisis but of two. They are related – the health crisis and the financial crisis – but they are not one and the same. It could reasonably be argued, in fact, that the skill set required to lead us out of one crisis is quite different from the skill set required to lead us out of the other.

To be sure, there are certain commonalities. Indeed, great leaders are so well endowed, and so amply equipped, that they are leaders for all seasons. They have the capacity to bring to all situations characteristics of character and patterns of behavior that serve them, serve everyone, well. But even leaders who are good though not great have a hard time coping with two crises simultaneously. And, even leaders who are good though not great can be overwhelmed by desperate demands coming at them from different directions.   

Hence the current onslaught of information and ideas about leadership in times of crisis. Pointing out the numberless deficits of President Donald Trump long ago became ritual. Is there anything even left to be said about his bad leadership? Just yesterday New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote a column titled, “How Trump is Worsening the Crisis.” As usual, Leonhardt was smart and on point. But, did he say anything new? Did he bring to the never-ending discussion about Trump anything we have not heard before?

Similarly, the spate of articles about leaders in the private sector. The Wall Street Journal points out the obvious, that the “radical new landscape” is forcing CEOs to make “tough management calls.” It cites Cisco’s CEO, Chuck Robbins, who aims to offer reassurance. And it references Marriott’s CEO, Arne Sorenson’s, emotional response to being forced to announce layoffs. And it describes how Testio’s CEO, Kieran Snyder, spends time at meetings getting employees to describe how they’re feeling. The Financial Times asked CEO’s directly: “What are your insights on the unprecedented challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.” (Though again, the virus crisis is just one of two current crises.) Accenture’s CEO, Julie Sweet, replied she thought three things especially important: transparency, calm, and keeping close to her constituents.  Mars CEO, Grant Reid, said he was relying on his company’s five principles: quality, responsibility, efficiency, mutuality, and freedom. And Novartis’s CEO, Vas Narasimhan, talked about the importance of keeping himself well, including getting enough sleep, holding to healthy habits, and taking the long view.        

People like me, ostensible experts on the subject, are constitutionally unable right now to resist the impulse to address leadership and management in this moment of crises. All well and all good.  But before we open our mouths or put pen to paper we should ask ourselves, do we have anything to say or write that is genuinely new and demonstrably different? If we do, great. If we do not, back to the drawing board. Or, back to basics, from Lao to Plato, from Shakespeare to Stanton, from Weber to Drucker.       

Women and Leadership – Another Look at Motherhood

In the past, I wrote rather regularly about women and leadership. In the recent past, I focused especially on how being a mother impacts being a leader.* Specifically, I proposed that pregnancy and lactation are major explicators of why the large gender gap between leaders at high levels persists. Why the gender gap in leadership persists despite twenty-five years of constant and considered efforts to close it.  

My primary point remains still politically incorrect – even taboo: the significant sociobiological differences between men and women, again, especially as they emerge during and after the period a woman is pregnant.  In brief, first I highlighted the certainty that women are primates. Second, I highlighted the probability that primate parenting bears on why, in 2019, only 6.6 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were women. (This figure is an all-time high.)  

The subject came to mind again this week, when I read an article by Sarah Menkedick in Time, titled, “Postpartum Anxiety Goes Undiagnosed.” Seems that approximately 6 percent of new mothers have postpartum depression. But, additionally, approximately 17 percent of new mothers have postpartum anxiety. In other words, almost one quarter of new mothers are affected by being pregnant in ways much more likely to hinder their leadership journeys than to help them. Given that approximately 85% of American women between the ages of 40 and 44 are mothers, we are talking here about a very large number of American women for whom becoming a mother could well handicap forever their chances of becoming a leader.

The point I make does not, nor should it imply paralysis. It is what it is – women bear babies and breastfeed them, not men.  But it does imply redirecting our attempts to support equity between women and men at the highest levels. It implies the emphasis should be less on redesigning organizations and more on reconsidering those who people them.      ——————————

*See, for example:

Also see, Barbara Kellerman, “Leadership and Lactation” in Sherylle Tan and Lisa DeFrank-Cole, eds, Women’s Leadership Journeys, Routledge, 2029.

Bad World Leadership

Leaders at the national level are not usually expected to be leaders at the international level. There are several reasons for this, most obvious among them are the nations they lead, which generally are not large or strong enough to provide them with a platform for exercising power or influence worldwide. There are occasional exceptions to this general rule, but they are just that, exceptions.

At the same time there are a few national leaders who are expected, virtually as a matter of course, to lead at the international level. These are leaders of countries of such obvious heft – especially militarily and economically – that neither their policies or preferences can possibly be ignored. The most obvious example is, of course, the United States, which at least since the end of the Second World War has played a dominant or, better, the dominant role in world affairs. Not for nothing was the U.S. long tagged, “leader of the free world.”

Presidents at least from Franklin Delano Roosevelt through Barack Obama have generally welcomed this role – though some more, of course, and some less. They assumed the mantle of world leader and did what they thought their level best to wear it responsibly. Easy enough to take issue with some of the decisions they made, but at least they did not fixate on what was happening at home while ignoring effectively entirely what was happening abroad.

Until President Donald Trump. It is by now a conventional wisdom that his interest in and knowledge of the world, and world affairs, is low, very, very low. He is entirely uninformed and, worse, completely incurious about anything anyplace except in so far as it affects his own fortunes. Moreover, he is outright antipathetic to countries and cultures other than his own, especially if they seem to him to be alien – that is, other than Scandinavian.

For most of Trump’s presidency this has been yet another of his numberless deficits. Now though, given the world is caught simultaneously in two different (though related) crises, a virus crisis and a financial crisis, Trump’s America-First fixation poses an unfamiliar threat of unknown scope.       

Every single one of Trump’s mid-to-late twentieth century predecessors, and every single one of his twenty-first century predecessors, would have been better equipped than he to forge the global alliance necessary to combat COVID-19. Similarly, every single one would have been better equipped than he to forge the global alliance necessary to steer us through the roiling financial markets.

Neither of the two crises threatening our well-being are national – they are international. They are international in their origins and they will be international in their solutions. But Trump’s relationships with leaders of countries that historically have been America’s allies – such as Canada and Germany, Mexico and France – are fraught at best and frayed at worst. And his relationships with leaders of countries that historically have been America’s adversaries – North Korea, Russia, and most importantly now, China – careen from being unctuous and obsequious to antipathetic and antagonistic.  

The public health and financial crises equally testify that globalization cannot, will not be undone. Further, addressing the first as well as the second mandates medical, scientific, political, and economic collaboration and cooperation at the international level. Because Trump is constitutionally unable to provide this transnational, multinational leadership, his subordinates in each of these domains are morally obligated to transcend their superior.      

Leading Swans – Black Swans

Ever tried to lead a swan? They typically have fierce temperaments and they are prone to aggressive behaviors, which is why telling them to fall in line is an exercise in futility. Additionally, when the swan in question is not white, as is usual, but black, as is highly unusual, the complexities of leading and managing these rare birds are compounded.

The conceit of the black swan, that is, a black swan event, was popularized around the time of the 2008 financial crisis by finance professor and former Wall Street trader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Broadly defined a black swan is 1) an event that is virtually entirely unanticipated; 2) an event that is likely to have severe, even dire consequences (especially financially); and 3) an event that people claim with the benefit of hindsight should have been foretold.   

Though by definition black swan events are unforeseen, one could reasonably argue that we should prepare for them, just in case. But, of course, that’s not how we work. We don’t generally plan for futures we don’t generally expect – a rule to which leaders are no exception. This explains how we got to where we are now – ensnared not in one but in two simultaneous crises that we did not foresee and for which we did not, therefore, prepare.

Until just a few weeks ago most of us had never heard of coronavirus. Until just a few weeks ago most of us could not distinguish between an epidemic and a pandemic. And, until just a few weeks ago the idea of being told by the authorities to “shelter in place” was not just unthinkable but unimaginable.

And yet here we are – in the vortex of two crises, both of which are black swan events. The first is the public health crisis brought on by the coronavirus. The second is the financial crisis, which was triggered by the coronavirus, but which is now separate and distinguishable. Therefore, the leadership class – in government and business and, for that matter, everywhere else – is responsible for shepherding us through two crises at the same time, crises which, though they are related, require experience and expertise in two entirely different domains.

Leadership experts should seize the day. Take at least an initial crack at drawing some lessons from this experience.  Ordinarily I am against generalizations. I’m the one who claims the importance of context – and the importance not just of leaders but of followers. But even I maintain that all crises have certain things in common, and that leaders can learn lessons from black swan events.  These include these twelve:

  1. The importance of imagination. Leaders and leadership teams should conjure various scenarios, even those that seem highly unlikely.
  2. The importance of preparation. Leaders and leadership teams should be ready to cope even with events that history would suggest are highly improbable.
  3. The importance of communication. Leaders and leadership teams should communicate with their constituents openly, frequently, and fully.
  4. The importance of prioritization. Leaders and leadership teams should be aware they cannot reasonably address too many issues all at the same time; problems should be sequenced in order of their importance.
  5. The importance of expertise. Leaders and leadership teams should shed so far as possible their various biases, instead drawing on experts to obtain information and ideas, facts and figures.   
  6. The importance of decision making. Leaders and leadership teams should follow the rules of good decision making by, for example, deliberately exposing themselves to different points of view.
  7. The importance of education. Leaders and leadership teams should be prepared fully to inform their followers, so they go along with a maximum of cooperation and a minimum of dissent.
  8. The importance of persuasion. Leaders and leadership teams should know to rely on sources of influence, as opposed to those of power and authority.
  9. The importance of integration. Leaders and leadership teams should be inclusive to bring into the fold different groups and organizations, individuals and institutions.   
  10. The importance of mobilization. Leaders and leadership teams should have the capacity to rally their followers, so that whatever the tasks that lie ahead, they are carried out readily and willingly.
  11. The importance of inspiration. Leaders and leadership teams should transcend the stresses and strains that black swan events inevitably induce by looking from the uncertain present to safe, secure future.
  12. The importance of reassurance. Leaders and leadership teams should calm the roiling waters by assuring their followers they are being led by people of good character and demonstrable competence.

Leaders and Followers and the Coming Class War

Leaders and Followers

“Leaders” and “followers” are defined in literally hundreds of different ways. Therefore, when we use one of these words, in speaking or writing, it’s our job to make clear how we, at least on this occasion, are defining them.  

For the purposes of this essay I will use them in keeping with the thinking of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In their classic pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, they claimed that humankind always divided into two groups, the powerful and the powerless. They wrote about, “the freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman” – in short, the “oppressor and the oppressed.” As they viewed human history, these two groups were always “in constant opposition to one another,” sometimes even engaging in a struggle that ended “either in revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

,Given the clarity of Marx and Engels’s distinctions between the haves and have-nots, it requires no great leap for a student of leadership to wade into their waters. It is easy enough to equate leaders with lords, and followers with serfs; and, or, leaders with patricians, and followers with plebeians. The overarching point remains the same: that societies fracture. That they are so riven with competition between the two groups, between the powerful and powerless, that it can lead, and sometimes does, to “common ruin.”

History though did not turn out quite as Marx and Engels foresaw. While the fractions remained, capitalism did not simply give way to communism because it, capitalism, was more pliable than they anticipated. Frequently, such as in the United States and in West Europe, capitalism was able to adapt, to provide the relatively powerless with enough goods and services to preclude them from taking on and tearing down the relatively powerful. This does not, however, mean that balance invariably is a given. Sometimes, between “oppressor and oppressed,” between leaders and followers, is imbalance.

The Communist Manifesto

Marx and Engels published their manifesto in 1848, hard on the heels of, and in response to, the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution that, as they viewed it, had divided Europe into two new, though still deeply divided camps: the bourgeoisie and the proletarians. On the one side owners (or capitalists) with power, position, and money; on the other side workers without power, position, or money.

The overarching sentiment of The Communist Manifesto is struggle. A never-ending struggle between haves and have-nots, between leaders who have everything and followers who have little or nothing. Marx and Engels’s assault on the bourgeoisie – those dastardly instruments of industrialization – was relentless. Owners, leaders, were responsible for, among a host of other sins, “stripping of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.” They were responsible for tearing “away from the family its sentimental veil” and reducing it to a “mere money relation.” And they were responsible for “creating more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together” – all in their self-interest, all at the expense of proletarians who toiled for a pittance for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.

No wonder then that The Communist Manifesto concluded with a cry for revolution. A cry for revolt by followers against their leaders. “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”

Never in a million years would Marx and Engels have imagined themselves part of a conversation about “leadership” and “followership” as we in the 21st century conceive of these concepts. Among other distinctions, their conception of leaders, of capitalists, owners, and employers, was all bad, while our contemporary conception of leaders, especially as they are configured in the leadership industry, is all good. People aim to be leaders, they want to be leaders, because the leadership industry depicts them not as instruments of destruction, but as instruments of construction.  

However, to imagine that leaders are pure as the driven snow, that they bear no relationship whatsoever to their forebearers, the bourgeoisie, even as Marx and Engels conceived of them, is to imagine wrong. One could argue, in fact, that to deprive leaders and followers of class distinctions is to deprive the entire leadership industry of consequence. For in the 21st century, as in the 19th century, leaders tend to have power, position, and a pile of money, while followers tend to have no power, no position, and no pile of money. In sum, Marx and Engels live. The class distinctions they made then apply now. And they apply to any discussion we might have about leaders and followers – always implicitly even if never explicitly.  

The United States in 2020

Our natural proclivity is to focus if not fixate on individuals. Sometimes these people are celebrities, known for something they did or achieved; other times these people are in high places, known for the positions they hold, which connote power and authority. Our fixation on individuals comes to a climax every four years, during presidential campaigns, when our prolonged obsession with who will be elected president reaches near hysterical proportions.  

One could argue, however, that closing the American divide – between those who have and those who do not – has less to do with individuals than with institutions. That what we need more than good leaders are good institutions. Institutions that will contract rather than expand the schisms among classes against which Marx and Engels railed over a century and a half ago. Institutional changes would include among others reforming the Senate; eliminating the Electoral College; revising the electoral system (above all to ensure voting rights); and a taking another look at the Supreme Court, for example, eliminating lifelong tenure for justices in an era in which people live forever. In the last few decades several of our most important institutions have become less rather than more democratic, thereby exacerbating the natural antipathies between leaders and followers. Time for change, lest we find ourselves overtaken by the class antagonisms with which Marx and Engels were deeply familiar.  

It happens that President Donald Trump’s base consists mostly of angry Americans, angry at being relegated to second class status. It similarly happens that Bernie Sanders’s base consists mostly of angry Americans, angry at being relegated to second class status. To be sure, these are two different peas, but without doubt they are part of the same pod.

Both Trump supporters and Sanders supporters tend to feel screwed – tend to think of themselves, many times justifiably, as have nots. The oppressed as opposed to the oppressors. Not leaders, but followers. Americans worried about health care.  Americans saddled with debt. Americans not knowing whether their paychecks, presuming they even have one, will cover their basic expenses. Mostly their stories are similar. Stories of hard luck and hard times, in which the overriding feeling is that the American dream has betrayed them – or that the American dream is dead.

Two recent book drive home the point. The first is by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, titled Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. It documents in grim, irrefutable detail how over the last three decades the rates of deaths of despair – deaths in consequence of suicide, alcoholism, and drug use – have soared. These deaths underscore, as the New York Times’s David Leonhardt points out, that “inequality has risen more in the United States – and middle-class incomes have stagnated more severely – than in France, Germany, Japan or elsewhere.” Whites without a college degree have been especially hard hit, but many of the problems afflicting the working class span racial groups. Moreover, these problems are not only financial. Case and Deaton document that “life for many middle-and low-income Americans can lack structure, status and meaning.” Marx and Engels saw the syndrome.   

The second book is by Nelson Schwartz, titled The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business. It displays the other side of the coin, the side that depicts how the rich have benefited from their power, their position, and their money. Schwartz: “There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who’s not at the pinnacle. This trend does not merely delight the wealthy – it also exacerbates the isolation and abandonment of everyone else.”

Is it reasonable to argue as I have, that the divide between the classes pertains now as it did then, when Marx and Engels penned The Communist Manifesto? Is it reasonable to argue as I have, that the antagonisms, the fierce and even ferocious antagonisms that Marx and Engels so vividly and enduringly described relate at least somewhat to the situation in which Americans now find themselves, one riven by class distinctions? And is it reasonable to argue as I have, that to cut from our conversations about leadership and followership the subject of class distinctions is as misguided as misleading?  

In the past I have written about what I called the leadership class. Here, for the first time, I use the word “class” as Marx and Engels did – literally. For the leadership class and the upper class are usually, or at least frequently, one and the same. An inconvenient truth that those of us in the leadership industry would do well to consider – lest one day not far into the future we get hoisted by our own petard.

Jack Welch. A Leader – But Not for All Seasons

Jack Welch, for two decades head of General Electric, was one of America’s best-known chief executive officers ever. When he retired, in 2001, he was anointed by Fortune magazine, the “Manager of the Century,” which, given his reputation at the time, was a plausible plaudit. For the twenty years during which Welch reigned were a time of seemingly unbounded success for the company into which he poured his extravagant energies.  

But whatever his triumphs during his tenure at the top, once it was over, it was game over. Few great companies anywhere in the world have fallen so far so fast as did General Electric in the two decades after Welch’s departure. In a soaring market its stock price is a fraction of what it was. The company has been kicked out of the Dow. Its current assets are puny compared to its former assets. And its failed leadership cadre has been an unarticulated rebuke to the man who invented, or at least popularized, routinized in-house corporate leadership trainings.       

Welch’s obituaries took note of his different levels of skill as they applied to two different skill sets. Skill set number one was successfully to lead a large organization in the present. Skill set number two was successfully to lead a large organization into the future – to leave a strong legacy by smart succession planning. Welch did wonderfully well at the first. He failed badly at the second.

The Financial Times noted that “Welch’s departure as chief executive marked the high point of his – and arguably GE’s – reputation.” The New York Times’s obituary cited James Stewart, who commented a few years ago that, “hardly anyone considers Mr. Welch a role model anymore.” And the Wall Street Journal concluded that GE’s troubles during the decades after his exit “raised questions about Mr. Welch’s management methods.” Again, each of these obituaries paid their respects, citing Welch’s accomplishments. But, at the same time, each made clear that though he had been tagged manager of the twentieth century, by the second decade of the twenty-first century his previously stellar reputation was visibly tarnished.    

For students of leadership the trajectory of Jack Welch career raises important questions. These include:

  1. What were the traits and behaviors that allowed him for so long so spectacularly to succeed?
  2. Why did these same traits and behaviors lead him astray when they involved his own succession planning?
  3. Exactly why did his team serve him outstandingly well for twenty years – but then badly let down not just him but his company?
  4. How did GE’s corporate culture – a culture that Welch created – contribute to GE’s steep descent?
  5. What was it about the context within which GE itself was embedded that contributed to its success for two decades – and then for the next two decades contributed to its decline?

Exceptional is the leader for all seasons. Whatever Welch’s strengths, turned out he was not exceptional. As a leader he was the rule – excellent at executing some tasks in some situations but far from excellent at executing other tasks in other situations.   

How to Follow and Lead – Simultaneously!

It’s a trick difficult to pull off. Very difficult. Not many can do it. Only a few even try. Only a few even try to follow and to lead simultaneously because not only is it difficult, it’s distasteful. Dreadfully distasteful.

Most people who want to lead want only to lead. Nothing else – as they see it, nothing less – will do. They do not want to follow, have no intention of following, not even for a moment, especially when that moment is hard on the heels of them trying hard, desperately hard, to be a leader not a follower.

The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, is, then, an exception in more ways than one.

  • In the 2020 presidential campaign he was relatively young while most of his competitors for the Democratic nomination were relatively old.
  • In the 2020 presidential campaign he was from the Midwest while most of his competitors for the Democratic nomination were from the East.
  • In the 2020 presidential campaign his political experience was limited and at the local level while most of his competitors for the Democratic nomination had extensive experience at the national level.
  • In the 2020 presidential campaign his background was relatively broad – he was, for example, a Rhodes Scholar and Navy Officer – while the backgrounds of most of his competitors for the Democratic nomination were relatively narrow.    
  • In the 2020 presidential campaign he at every turn had a first-class temperament while most of his competitors for the Democratic nomination clearly thought they had to scream to be heard.
  •  In the 2020 presidential campaign he was demonstrably a man of faith while most of his competitors for the Democratic nomination eschewed all displays of faith.   
  • In the 2020 presidential campaign he was an openly gay man, happily married to another gay man while most of his competitors for the Democratic nomination were presumed to be straight. In fact, in this Pete Buttigieg deviated from every other presidential contender ever. He is gay and proud of it.
  • In the 2020 presidential campaign he was able to act in his own self-interest and in the national interest simultaneously, while most of his competitors for the Democratic nomination were reduced to seeming narcissists.
  • In the 2020 presidential campaign Buttigieg got that in order to lead he had to follow. He had to follow – to all appearances Joe Biden who in the wake of his blowout win in South Carolina emerged the only viable alternative for the Democratic nomination for president to Bernie Sanders.

Buttigieg claimed that all he did was the math. That he calculated that after his loss in South Carolina there was no path to his becoming president. That’s true. But if math were the only calculus the rest of the field would also drop out – now. So, obviously, this is about much more than math. Obviously, folks like Bloomberg and Klobuchar and Warren still feel driven to lead not because they do not know that two plus two equals four.* But because they cannot bear the idea of being a follower. They cannot bear the idea of following one or the other party leader until they are forced by circumstance into compliance.

Mayor Pete on the other hand – by proving it’s possible to follow and to lead simultaneously – has positioned himself supremely well for his political future. Whether sooner or later the remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination for president – that is, those other than Biden and Sanders – will follow his lead and drop out. Whether sooner or later Buttigieg, still only in his thirties, will leave them all in the proverbial dust.    

*Technically Tulsi Gabbard also remains still in the race.