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.

Faithful Followers Folding?

For the last year at least, observers of the American political scene have been astonished at the passivity of Congressional Republicans. Almost without exception, they have been supine, abjectly subjecting themselves to the president.

But, of course, the real reason they have been faithful followers is not on account of the man himself, Donald Trump, for whom most have no love lost, but on account of the Republican base, which up to now has proved remarkably resilient. Trump has been able to count on his cult, which has remained virtually immune to his miserable manners, moral failings, and toxic politics.

However … the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll raises the question of whether the mood of the moment is changing. Whether increasing numbers of Americans – Republicans as well as Democrats – are getting sick and tired of their president even now, less than half way into his first term. Consider these numbers:

  • Trump’s disapproval rating has hit a high of 60 percent.
  • Nearly half of those polled said Congress should begin impeachment proceedings.
  • 63% of Americans support the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller.
  • 67% of Americans think Mueller’s case against Paul Manafort was justified; only 18 percent support the idea of his receiving a presidential pardon.
  • 64% of Americans do not think the president should fire his repeatedly maligned Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions; only 19% think he should.

It’s too early to tell if this particular poll is a predictor. It could just be an outlier. But if it does foretell the future Trump’s presidency is in serious trouble.  For indications to the contrary, his future in his followers’ hands, not in his own, capacious though they may be.


Pinning the Pope

Pope Francis is trying to get out from under. Just this week an Archbishop and former Vatican diplomat accused the Pontiff of concealing and ignoring accusations of abuse against a once prominent and now disgraced American cleric. Just this week American Catholic leaders emerged in open conflict not just about abuse allegations, but about more fundamental issues, especially the Church’s position on homosexuality. And just this week the state of Pennsylvania issued the most careful and complete chronicle ever of sexual abuse in America – testifying to some 1,000 child victims abused by some 300 Catholic clergy.

What was the Pope’s response to this deluge? It was, in effect, a non-response. To journalists asking about the Archbishop’s statement that detailed his charges, Pope Francis chose not to engage. “I will not say one word on this, “he said. “I think the statement speaks for itself and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions.”

The Pope’s reluctance to get embroiled is understandable. To stay above the fray is a reasonable short-term tactic. Whether it will be an equally reasonable long-term strategy remains to be determined. It is not likely to quiet those who have already called on him to resign.* Nor is it likely to stem the end of leadership – a tide that has already engulfed many other leaders in many other places.


*Matthew Schmitz, “A Catholic War Over Gay Priests,” New York Times, August 28, 2018. Schmitz started his piece by writing,  “Pope Francis must resign. That conclusion is unavoidable if allegations contained in a letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Gigano are true.”



President John McCain

Ask yourself, why this extraordinary display of love, respect, admiration, and yes, veneration of John McCain on the announcement of his death?

It is true he was an authentic American hero, a military man who long suffered and ultimately prevailed for love of country. It is also true that he was a lion of the Senate, having served for decades in this once august body. Finally, it is true that though he himself admitted he was flawed, so far as we knew his character was of the highest caliber.

But the underlying explanation for America’s outpouring is the contrast between John McCain, who wanted to become president of the United States, and Donald Trump, who did become president of the United States. It is the comparison between McCain and Trump, the latter falling so strikingly far short by every measure, that is the real reason for our extreme grieving.

Whether or not you agreed with him politically, it was John McCain who represented us symbolically. At least in our mind’s eye. In our mind’s eye it was McCain, certainly not Trump, who stood for the best in us. In our mind’s eye it was McCain, certainly not Trump, who represented America’s highest ideals. In our mind’s eye it was McCain, certainly not Trump, who spent a lifetime serving his country with exceptional distinction.

In our mind’s eye it is the reputable, honorable John McCain who would be American’s chief executive, not the disreputable, dishonorable Donald Trump. So Americans grieve both for what was … and for what is.


Bad Leadership, Good Followership

What, in the face of bad leadership, dangerously bad leadership, does good followership consist of?

It does not consist of turning away, of willful avoidance.

It does not consist of deliberately deciding to say nothing and do nothing.

It does not consist of mouthing off – in private.

It does not consist of small acts of defiance in response to major misdeeds.

It does consist of resistance – unremitting, unrelenting, unwavering, unconcealed, unmistakable, and unafraid resistance.

It consists of acts like this.


To Save the Planet – Leadership

To lead in the best of circumstances is difficult. To lead in the worst of circumstances is near impossible. Such is the case with climate change. Leadership on the issue of climate change is leadership in the worst of circumstances. It is near impossible.

This essay reeks of gloom – it provides no easy answer or quick fix. Instead it provides an explanation for why, as the planet demonstrably gets hotter, and sea levels demonstrably rise, humankind has been unable, completely, so far at least, to rise to the challenge. We feel the heat, literally, metaphorically, but we are unable to act, to make the gargantuan effort that would be required to retard and repair the growing damage. The following excerpts from the following works explain why.

  • From the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change, quoted in Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (p. 224).

Climate change presents perhaps the most profound challenge ever to have confronted human, social, political, and economic systems. The stakes are massive, the risks and uncertainties severe, the economics controversial, the science besieged, the politics bitter and complicated, the psychology puzzling, the impacts devastating, the interactions with other environmental and no-environmental issues running in many directions. The social problem-solving mechanisms we currently possess were not designed and have not evolve to cope with anything like an interlinked set of problems of this severity, scale, and complexity. There are no precedents.  

  • From Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (p. 225).

What, more precisely, do leaders have to contend with? Why is this problem so profound? First is the level of its complexity: climate is a “system that is characterized by multiple driving forces, strong feedback loops, long time lags, and abrupt change behavior.” Second, climate entails concepts, even language, with which most lay people, including leaders in government and business, are not familiar…Third, climate change is not a national problem, but an international, multinational, transnational one….Fourth, the time horizon on climate change is close to meaningless, especially to leaders, who tend to think short term, not long term. Fifth, the problem of climate change entails equity or, better, inequity. For example, although China recently overtook the U. S. as the largest single national emitter of carbon dioxide, the figures per capita tell a different story…Finally, the problem of climate change is so “profound” because of probable “tipping points” – the collapse of large polar ice sheets, for instance, or large-scale changes in ocean circulation that could trigger an “unexpectedly large and rapid or irreversible change.” In sum, the problems presented by climate change seem so overwhelming that leaders have inclined to ignore them.    

  • From Nathanial Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. A Tragedy in Two Acts” in the New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.

We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions we risk the collapse of civilization…. So we worry about the future. But how much exactly? The answer, as any economist could tell you, is very little. Economics, the science of assigning value to human behavior, prices the future at a discount: the further out you project, the cheaper the consequences. This makes the climate problem the perfect economic disaster….Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties, or as individuals are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations…. If human beings really were able to take the long view – to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths – we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term, and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.