A White House Named Desire

Ironically, Donald Trump’s passion is not for power, which would seem the reason for his wanting to be president. Nor is it for sex, which would seem the appetite for which he once sought to be best known. Rather it is for money. Trump’s insatiable appetite, his unquenchable thirst, his relentless drive is for money, and more money. No amount of money in the world will ever, can ever, satisfy him.

To his credit, he is not without insight. He once described himself, before becoming president, as “greedy, greedy, greedy.” The remarkable thing is that after becoming president he remains the same. Greed – increasing his and his family’s already enormous personal wealth – remains his driving force.

On one level this comes as no surprise. Why should a man, especially perhaps a man of a certain age, change when he comes to Washington? Change just because he went, overnight, from being a carnival barker and real estate developer to being chief executive? We know, or we should, that in matters of character, past is prologue. If we thought once Trump became president he would morph into someone different from what he was lifelong, we were fools.

But, on another level, his inability to change even a little bit, to adopt even a smidgen the standards associated with the presidential office, never fails to shock. Never fails to discourage and dismay.

Trump ran for president without thinking he would win. He ran not because he wanted to acquire more power, but because he wanted to accrue more money. He viewed the presidential campaign as a means to an end. The end in his case being not the White House, but the greater gain associated with greater fame.

Small wonder that when Trump became president his quest for cash continued rather than ceased. Small wonder that he is being sued by Maryland and the District of Columbia, which charged that he violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which is intended to “prevent the least possibility of undue influence and corruption being exerted upon the President by foreign governments.” It is intended to hold a president like Trump accountable for maintaining ownership of his far-flung business operations, and for continuing to reap the benefits, foreign and domestic, that are in consequence of his presidency.

Yesterday Trump responded to a question about the near certain murder of Saudi journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi not with outrage but with appeasement. He described the relationship between Saudi Arabia – a country to which he has always, for mercenary reasons, been inordinately well-disposed – and the U. S. as “excellent.” And he responded to questions about Khashoggi by asserting that he would not support halting the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia because of the “massive amounts of money” the Saudi’s “pour” into our country and, he might have added, into his, and his son-in-law’s, personal coffers. In other words, even the gruesome assassination of a well-known, highly respected, Washington-based journalist did not stop Trump from seeing everyone and everything through the prism of cold cash. It bespeaks his cold heart – and his chronic obsession with being richer than God.


Leaders and Followers – Miserable Monday

  • In Brazil, a far-right candidate, leader of the once insignificant Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro, just won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. Bolsonaro, until recently on the fringes of power, has stirred controversy by making remarks variously described as misogynistic, racist, and homophobic. This in a country that is mostly nonwhite.
  • Saudi Arabia yesterday dismissed as “baseless” any accusations or implications that it was involved in the disappearance and apparent murder in Turkey of prominent Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, who was described by Washington Post editorial editor as “committed and courageous,” had written critically about Saudi’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • About China at this moment in its history, political scientist Stein Ringen has in no uncertain terms concluded that,  “The People’s Republic of China is … not ‘an authoritarian system,’ it is a ‘totalitarian state.’” Ringen named four characteristics of totalitarianism, each of which he said applied: 1) government upheld by terror; 2) government reach from public life into private lives; 3) government rule through an extensive bureaucracy; and 4) government under the authority of a commanding ideology.
  • On the question of whether the current situation in the United States bears any resemblance to Europe during the interwar years, when fascism was on the rise, Holocaust historian Christopher Browning writes that there are “several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.” He concludes his disturbing article in the October 25 New York Review as follows: “Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism, but regardless of how the Trump presidency concludes, this is a story unlikely to have a happy ending.”
  • The United Nations today issued another dire report on the coming consequences of climate change. This one is, if anything, grimmer even than its predecessors, if only because the time frame is shorter than previously was estimated. But, for those who wonder if anything can be done to stop what literally is the rising tide, there is this: my recent blog (see below) on why leaders find it so difficult to stave off what all but the densest among us recognize is a deadly threat to life on this earth as we know it.

To Save the Planet – Leadership


French Followers Eat their Young

Not much over a year ago he was France’s Boy Wonder. Young and good looking; well-educated and highly accomplished; remarkably bold and equally bright; Emmanuel Macron was strikingly successful in business and, subsequently, in politics. He came out of nearly nowhere to sweep into the Elysee Palace, France’s preternaturally splendid equivalent of the White House, at the tender age of 39.

Since then it’s been straight downhill. On the international stage Macron still manages to cut a bit of a dashing figure. But at home things are different. The French have given him nearly no time to prove himself, deciding instead early in his presidential term that they don’t like him. In December 2017 some 50 % of French people still supported Macron. Some nine months later, this figure had dropped to 19 %. Moreover, fully 60% of those polled found his achievements “negative,” almost double the figure of a half year ago. In other words, fewer than one in five French followers now approve of the leader they relatively recently voted into the nation’s highest office.

There is no single reason for Macron’s dramatic decline in popularity. Yes, his tenure has been tarnished by some scandals, but none have been serious. Yes, he pushed through, perhaps precipitously, some pro-market reforms that made him seem somewhat oblivious to the needs of France’s working class. And yes, he has a manner that many see as off-putting, arrogant, maybe even authoritarian. But these supposed sins are minor, not major. He has worked hard to kick France into higher gear – the country has languished in recent years, especially in comparison with its generally far more prosperous and powerful neighbor, Germany – and it’s far too early to tell if his efforts will pay off.

No, the problem Macron has is more fundamental. His problem is his followers, the people, the French people. Like other peoples across Europe, and for that matter in the United States, today’s voters are exceedingly easily bored and exceedingly easily angered. They, we, have little tolerance and nearly no patience. Not a good recipe for a liberal democracy which requires a modicum of both.


Leadership – Reform…or Revolution?

Earlier this year, Oxford University Press published my most recent book, Professionalizing Leadership.  The book makes a strong argument for the proposition that leadership programs – other than those in the military – are by and large inadequate and insufficient. That the way we profess to teach how to lead is, usually, so minor and measly as to be unserious.

In the book I contrast learning how to be a leader with learning how to be a doctor or a lawyer to point to the striking differences between them. Learning how to practice medicine and law takes years and ends with requirements that attest to professionalism. Learning how to exercise leadership usually takes just weeks or even weekends, sometimes several months, or maybe, occasionally, a year; and it ends with no requirement whatsoever. No demonstration of clear competence generally is necessary, not at any point in the process, even at the end.

Professionalizing Leadership makes a case for reform. For reimagining and reconfiguring what is. But, after watching some of the proceedings yesterday in Washington, at the hearing during which Judge Brett Kavanaugh faced down one of his accusers, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who charged that during their time in high school he sexually assaulted her, I’m left wondering if what the leadership industry needs is reform. Or if what it really needs is revolution. If  what it really needs is to be overturned in its entirety.

One thing is clear. After yesterday’s hearing, which was variously described as a “national disgrace” and one of the “most shameful chapters in the history of the United States,” trust in American institutions, and in those who lead them, will plummet still further. The question then is: Should we, we in the leadership industry, continue to fiddle while Rome burns? Or does it behoove us, intellectually, ethically, to question the very premises that underlie the practices we preach?


Following – Standing by Your Man

The scene we just saw – at 7 this evening, on Fox News – is woefully familiar. We’ve seen it all before: the dutiful wife standing by her possibly seriously errant husband.

There she is, Ashley Kavanaugh, planted next to her husband, Brett Kavanaugh, largely silent witness to his presumably impeccable character. Her presence is symbolic, not substantive. She is testimony, if mainly mutely, to his wonderfulness as a husband and father; to his wonderfulness as a man in full; to his wonderfulness as a legal arbiter.

In a 1992 joint television interview with would-be president Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton did essentially the same. She rejected the mere idea that she was the “little woman” straight out of Tammy Wynette’s country classic, “Stand by Your Man.” To the contrary, she insisted, she was sitting next to her husband, who already was fending off rampant rumors about rampant infidelities, simply because she loved and respected him.

Some years later, in 2004, Dina McGreevey, stood by her husband, James McGreevey, when he announced he was resigning the governorship of New Jersey not only because he had cheated on his wife, but because he was, additionally, “a gay American.” What was the purpose of such wifely support in  such a dreadfully difficult circumstance? Once again, it was for public consumption, symbolic, not substantive. Dina’s Jim was not all bad, Dina was silently saying. Dina’s Jim was, among other things, a devoted father to their daughter.

In 2008, we had a repeat performance, this time by Silda Wall Spitzer. Silda Spitzer similarly stood alongside her husband, in this case New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, as he admitted during a deeply humiliating news conference that he had violated his obligations to his family and his “sense of right and wrong.” At least he did not, in public, oblige his wife to listen in stony silence as he confessed to being caught in a taudry sex scandal involving prostitutes.

Who can speak to the complexities of marriage? Certainly not I. I just wish that wives would let husbands speak for themselves. That wives  trapped in a mess not of their own making would balk at putting on a public show of private support. Each of these husbands made their own bed. The least they could do is lie in it.  Alone.






Leadership – The Single Worst Decision?

I’ve just returned from a few days of work in London. They happened to coincide with yet another humiliating setback for Prime Minister Theresa May. This one on Thursday, at a summit in Salzburg, where a series of European Union leaders made painfully clear they considered her overarching attitude toward Brexit uncompromising, and her specific proposal for leaving the EU unworkable.

Pity the poor PM. Whatever her deficits as a leader, she was handed by her predecessor, former Prime Minister David Cameron, the weakest of possible hands. I have said for some time that Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum in which British voters could decide “leave” or “remain” – that is, quit the European Union or stay in it – was a miserably bad one. I am increasingly convinced that it was the single worst decision made by a leader of a liberal democracy in the last ten years.

Cameron was by every measure qualified to be the head of what even now, long after its prime, is one of the world’s most fabled nation states. He was highly educated, long experienced, and judged clever and competent.  But it turned out he was a fool. He did not understand that leadership had changed, that followership had changed, and that he could not, therefore, simply presume that voters would follow his lead. He held a referendum on Brexit because he was sure he would win. He seems never to have carefully considered the possibility that he would lose. He seems never to have carefully considered the possibility that to have people to vote up or down on a proposal they could not possibly properly understand risked proving an historic mistake.

In consequence of Cameron’s 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom since has been consumed by this single issue – how to execute Brexit without doing irreparable harm to itself and, by extension, to the European experiment. Unless this question is reasonably resolved, the implications for Europe, and for the West more generally, threaten in the long run to mutate from damaging to dire.


Leader to Leader – to Leader

President Donald Trump fancies himself one of them. A member of a small, elite club of strongman leaders, among them leaders of the most powerful countries on the planet. These first among unequals include the presidents of Russia and China, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

But while Trump thinks he’s at the center of the action – among his proudest moments as president have been side by side with the one or the other – he is not. To the contrary. He is at the margin, patently perceived as a dupe and a fool, as well as an opponent, while Putin and Xi play footsie.

Putin and Xi each have their own reasons for being furious with Trump. No matter Trump’s curious history with Putin, America’s sanctions against Russia continue.  And, no matter Trump’s early overtures to Xi, America’s trade tiffs with China threaten to escalate into a full-fledged trade war. In response, Putin and Xi did what people do in such situations: They joined forces, in this case literally, against their common enemy, temporarily certainly,  Trump.

In fact, they went further. At their summit meeting held just last week, which happened also to include impressive displays of Russian military might, they went to great lengths to present themselves as pals. They discussed military cooperation, strengthening economic ties, and using local currencies for cross-border trade. Putin, moreover, spoke of Xi as his “great friend.” Xi, in turn, addressed the “comprehensive cooperation between China and Russia in the development of the Far East.”

During the heyday of the Soviet Union, and the early days of Communist China, the two countries had close ties. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s they split, their relations for decades more characterized by enmity than comity. So it’s not as if Russia and China are natural allies. They are not, which is why  the U. S. need not fear the two countries will indefinitely remain strategically aligned, or their two leaders necessarily fast friends. Putin and Xi have a marriage of convenience. But, there is no question that for the moment they enjoy a relatively warm relationship. Just as there is no question that for the moment Trump’s ties to both men are frayed.



The Leader Slayer

In the last year no one brought down more powerful American men than Ronan Farrow. They continue moreover to fall – the latest among them Les Moonves, among the mightiest men in media – victimized by that most lethal of weapons, a pen.* Beginning with Harvey Weinstein, and ending heaven knows with whom , more than anything else it was Farrow’s articles appearing in The New Yorker that triggered the #MeToo movement. Which means it is he who, directly or indirectly, is responsible for the downfall of one after another head honcho, some in business and politics, others in arts and sports, still others in entertainment, comedians to tragedians.

Farrow is no ordinary leader slayer. He is slight in stature, basically bookish, exceedingly smart, and, in his first (and intermittently still continuing) incarnation, an expert on foreign affairs. In fact, he was a protégé of one of the most eminent men in the American foreign policy establishment, Richard Holbrooke. But, a couple of years ago, Farrow sunk his teeth into the topic of sexual abuse and he has not since let up. His second article on the previously untouchable Moonves did the man in.

What explains Farrow’s fixation is rank speculation. But, I cannot resist providing the following, psychoanalytically-tinged, information. Farrow’s mother is the well-known and accomplished actress, Mia Farrow. His father of record (don’t ask) is the supremely well-known and highly accomplished director, Woody Allen. Some years ago, Allen was accused by Dylan, his daughter, Ronan’s sister, of molesting her when she was a child. No charges were ever pressed. However, it is also the case that Allen began his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, now his wife, when she was a teenager living at home with her adoptive mother, Mia Farrow.

In short, it’s complicated. Suffice to say here it would appear there’s a reason why Farrow, educated and trained in foreign policy, has at least for now made it his mission to take on powerful men who abuse women far, far less powerful than they. Like Oedipus, to avenge his mother he killed, among others, his father. In this case not literally, obviously, but certainly politically, and probably professionally. Farrow has hammered a nail into the coffin of his parent – and many another of his ilk.

*See my previous post, on related subject, “Les and Sex.” http://barbarakellerman.com/les-and-sex/



2018 FT MBA Skills Gap Survey – What Leader Learners Lack

The results of the Financial Times 2018 MBA Skills Gap Survey are surprising. More precisely, they are somewhat surprising, they are not very surprising.

For educators, arguably especially those in second-tier business schools, the findings are, or they should be, disheartening. They are another reminder that the value of MBA degrees is increasingly being questioned, because they are thought increasingly irrelevant. According to the FT, “Some leading employers are [growing more] skeptical about the MBA qualification as a means of delivering candidates with they skills they need – soft or hard.” One result: Almost half of the 72 employers surveyed said they struggled to hire MBA graduates with strong qualifications, compared with a third last year.

Young professionals face their own warning signs, among them employers who now seek capacities and characteristics not easily learned in a classroom. For example, companies find it easy enough to recruit people who have “hard skills,” such as marketing, accounting, and use of social media.  However, they find it difficult to recruit people who have “soft skills.” These include 1) the ability to influence others; 2) the capacity to think strategically; 3) the competence to solve complex problems; and 4) the characteristics of drive and resilience. Soft skills are, moreover, deemed more important by employers than hard skills, though they remain harder to measure, especially early on, during recruitment.

Once again those of us in the business of teaching leadership and management are being implicitly questioned about the value of what we teach.  Once again those of you in the business of learning leadership and management are being implicitly questioned about the value of what you learn.

Pity the President

I never, not in a million years, thought I could ever, would ever, feel sorry for Donald Trump.

Even paranoids have real enemies. Which explains why, since the double whammy of Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, and the infamous, anonymous op-ed in the NY Times, “The Quiet Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” it’s become chillingly clear that the president is surrounded by intimates and aides who are willing to betray him.

“Treason?” the president tweeted in his reactive rage. Well, he’s not far off. Those of his subordinates who go behind his back are not guilty of political treachery, but they are guilty of personal treachery. From his perspective, from the perspective of the leader, none of his followers, not a single one of them, can reliably be trusted.

What could be worse? No matter how highly positioned, leaders depend, absolutely, on reasonably faithful followers. Without such subordinates they are lost, ineffectual to the point of being powerless. Here, moreover, we have a situation in which the president is ignorant. He has no idea really on whom he can depend and on whom he cannot. He is in maze of his own making – with no way out.

This is what we now know:

  • “Many” of the president’s closest subordinates cannot be relied on personally to support him.
  • “Many” of the president’s closest subordinates cannot be relied on politically to support him.
  • “Many” of the president’s closest subordinates cannot be relied on to follow his orders.
  • “Many” of the president’s closest subordinates cannot be relied on to implement his policies.
  • “Many” of the president’s closest subordinates concur he is unstable and amoral.
  • “Many” of the president’s closest subordinates concur he is incapable and ineffective.
  • “Many” of the president’s closest subordinates support and participate in a “two-track presidency.”
  • “Many” of the president’s closest subordinates have “vowed” to “thwart” his “worst impulses.”
  • Some of the president’s closest subordinates have explored invoking the 25th amendment – they think him that much of a threat to the national welfare.

Relationships between leaders and followers are as inextricable as they are inevitable. Put yourself then in the president’s shoes. In the shoes of this man who, however deeply and even fatally flawed, is surrounded by not a single subordinate on whom he can completely and comfortably rely. Pity a man who cannot know if he has a single faithful friend. Pity a president who cannot know if he has a single faithful follower.