Parasitic Leadership

The word “leadership” is hard to define. It has hundreds of different definitions. But, the word “parasitic” is not hard to define. When a person is parasitic, he or she lives off another, depends on another for simple sustenance. This explains why persons who are parasite-like are so hard to get rid of. They benefit from feeding off people who support them; they benefit from having to bestow in exchange nothing of value.

It also explains why synonyms for parasite are words such as “leech” and “bloodsucker.” Parasites take what they can – no thought given to returning the favor. And once they sink their teeth in, they are, for good and obvious reasons, difficult, sometimes even impossible, to extract. For the purpose of this discussion, then, I define parasitic leadership as exercised by a person in a position of authority who feeds off of his or her followers without giving much if anything in exchange. Parasitic leadership is, moreover, clingy. It clings to the source of its authority – sometimes to the point of strangling it.

Parasitic leaders are remarkable to behold. Most striking is their capacity to hang on and dig in even after most of their hosts – their followers – recognize that they are malign. Followers of parasitic leaders typically find that they are stuck. They are stuck with leaders who refuse to give up, to let go, to allow themselves to be pulled out or peeled off even after it becomes blindingly obvious that they are widely disliked and distrusted. Even after it becomes blindingly obvious that many if not most can no longer stomach them. Even after it becomes blindingly obvious that they are miserably ineffective, or wretchedly unethical, or maybe both.

Left to their own devices, parasitic leaders feed off their followers –sucking them dry to the point of rendering them helpless. Which is why attention must be paid. Unless followers of parasitic leaders muster the moxie fiercely to resist them, they will be done in. Parasitical leaders are completely dependent on followers for life support. Without sufficient numbers of faithful followers parasitic leaders will wither and disappear. But, with sufficient numbers of feckless followers parasitic leaders will hold tight and remain in place till their dying day.     

Followers in Germany

Followership in Germany has been more closely studied than in any other country or culture. This applies especially during the decades after World War II, during which several eminent social scientists focused not just on Hitler, but on the numberless Germans who were his followers. Hitler’s followers included his slavish disciples and his most ardent acolytes. They also included ordinary Germans – here called Bystanders. Bystander Germans did not aggressively support the Nazi regime – though many voted for the Nazi party – but nor did they aggressively oppose it. By and large they simply went along, no matter that by the 1940s public policy had become genocidal.

That though was then. By virtually every accounting, by the 1960s the German people had undergone a transformation. Their national character had changed, different after the war than it was before the war. Among the various changes was a strong proclivity to pacifism – to the point where, even now, every time one or another politician (domestic or foreign) proposes an increase in Germany’s defense spending, the objections are as loud as they are clear.

Understandably, for the last 75 years, nearly all studies of followership in Germany have focused on Germans as political actors. After all, their willingness, in some cases their eagerness, to follow their leader, Hitler, during the 1930s and well into the 1940s had calamitous political consequences, worldwide. Moreover, as they relate to the private sector, followers everywhere have tended to be relatively quiescent. For example, during most of American history, corporate leaders led while the rest of us followed. We too, though generally more boisterous than Germans, tended to be Bystanders, with growing shareholder activism only a relatively recent phenomenon.

The more surprising, then, to discover that in the last few years some German people have prominently, and aggressively, taken on some German businesses.  There are several reasons for this, most screamingly obvious among them is that some of the largest and best known among German companies have been miserably badly led – to the point where they became not just embarrassments at home, but also abroad.

For American audiences among the most prominent of these is Volkswagen, which has yet to recover from the admissions scandal of a few years ago that cost the company tens of billions of dollars, in addition to its previously reliably good name. (The CEO who presided over Volkswagen’s deception, Martin Winterkorn, has since been indicted for fraud and conspiracy in the U.S., and for fraud in Germany.) Another German corporate behemoth that recently became something of a household name is Deutsche Bank, whose many years of financial hanky-panky with one Donald J. Trump have, at a minimum, turned into a public relations disaster. (Deutsche Bank was willing to deal with Trump long after virtually every other major financial institution was done doing business with a man they long since had pegged as a shyster.) Other German corporations are facing similar scrutiny, such as Bayer, whose share price in the last nine months dropped an eye-popping 37 %. (In 2016, Bayer, possibly to its everlasting regret, swallowed up Monsanto. It has been said that this single gulp accounts for the drop in Bayer’s share price.)

Who exactly is casting a wary eye? Followers. German followers. Germans who previously exercised no power or influence, but who in the last few years decided to flex some newly developed muscles. Who more precisely are they? They range from recently emboldened corporate (supervisory) boards, to recently emboldened shareholder activists, to recently emboldened ordinary shareholders who are finding their voice in unprecedent ways. At Bayer’s annual meeting last month CEO Werner Baumann had to put up with “dozens of tirades” directed against him, not to speak of the first ever vote of no confidence against the management team of a Dax-listed company.*

What is happening now in Germany is not dramatically different from what is happening in the United States. Just like followers in the public sector, followers in the private sector are becoming notably more involved, perceptibly more assertive. But, the fact that followers in Germany specifically are so obviously different in the present from what they were in the past, testifies to how followers everywhere are changing the rules of the game. Worldwide the consequences of these changes are far-reaching and wide-ranging – from very, very good to very, very bad.


Guy Chazan, “Investors Take on Germany Inc,” Financial Times, May 8, 2019.

Women and Leadership – Redux

As of May 1st, every poll had men leading the list of Democratic contenders. Not only were Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in the lead, they were in the lead by a lot. To say the obvious, this can and will change. But as of this writing, the odds are against a woman at the top of either the Republican or Democratic 2020 presidential ticket.

As always, the question is why. Why given the strong slate of Democratic women (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand), every one of whom has won every election in which she ran, do they still lag after men?

The answers of course are complex, and they are various. So, I will not here attempt to address the question in full. Still, I will seize the occasion to review recent research on women in the American workplace and use it to reiterate how knotty the problem.

  • The most educated women still face the biggest gender gaps in both status and pay.
  • Women still comprise less than 5 % of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
  • Women still comprise less than 25 % of the U.S. Congress.
  • Women still comprise just one quarter of the top 10 % of U. S. earners.
  • The returns to working long, inflexible hours have significantly increased.
  • Assuming two parents with young children, generally only one takes the very demanding job – the father not the mother.
  • Technology has made professions greedier for people who put in exceedingly long hours.
  • People who work 50 hours or more a week earn up to 8 percent more per hour than those who work from 35 to 49 hours.
  • More women (80%) with advanced degrees have children than was the case 20 years ago (65%) – hence more women are affected by whatever the gender imbalances.
  • MenCare estimates it will take another 75 years for men worldwide to do half the unpaid work that domesticity requires.
  • Only 17 percent of mothers with children three years or younger say they prefer to work full time.*

To summarize: First, American women still lag far behind American men, especially in the most visible and important leadership roles. Second, the reasons for this relate more to the exceedingly demanding nature of work, especially professional work, in the 21st century than they do to anything else. Third, the exceedingly demanding nature of work most directly affects women with young children. Fourth, the work-related differences between men and women seem not only to be imposed from the outside; some seem to emanate from the inside, from women who want to remain close to their children, especially when they are young. Fifth, while all the fixes still focus on the workplace, women will continue to be women. Specifically, they will continue to be the parent who is pregnant, and who, after the baby is born, can if she wants breast feed the baby. Sixth, until the intersection between the nature of the workplace and the nature of women (and men) is addressed, so long will the conundrum of women and leadership persist.    

Postscript: Elizabeth Warren has two adult children. Kamala Harris has two children, both born to her husband and his prior wife. (Harris has not had a child of her own.)  Klobuchar has one adult child. Gillibrand his two teenaged children.

  • Note: For an excellent article on greedy work and its impact on women particularly, see Claire Cain Miller, “Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy’” in New York Times, April 28, 2019.

President Pete III (Following a Faith)

In her recent book, Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, Sara Georgini explores “how pivotal” to the family was Christianity. It shaped their political decisions for three centuries, beginning with John Adams and his wife, Abigail. Though it sounds quite quaint – the last president to wear his Christianity on his sleeve was Jimmy Carter – there is one candidate now running for the White House, Pete Buttigieg, to whom Christianity is similarly central.

In a recent speech that garnered a lot of attention, Buttigieg framed his being gay in the context of his faith. Though Vice President Mike Pence was not present for the occasion, Buttigieg addressed his former colleague from Indiana directly. To Pence, a conservative, who is well known for, for example, opposing gay marriage, Buttigieg said that his own recent marriage to a man had, “yes, Mr. Vice President, moved me closer to God.”

Presumably neither Christianity nor sexuality is relevant to who should be the next president. However, Americans generally equate being a person of faith with being a person who has a moral framework. This is not, of course, to make a general statement. It is certainly not to suggest that those who do not follow a faith have no moral framework. Or that those with a moral framework have one with which I, say, agree. Nevertheless it is to suggest something specific about a specific candidate, Buttigieg, who clearly has thought extensively about many moral issues and who, in consequence, has reached certain conclusions, some of them quite recently. (An example: he reached the decision to be openly gay only in thirties.)

The president we have now is amoral. He lacks a sense of rightness, and of wrongness, or maybe it’s that he just doesn’t care. He does in any case, in his capacity as president, violate some of the most fundamental standards of decency and integrity. Which should, but likely will not, evict him from the Oval Office.

I cannot opine with any certainty about what Pete Buttigieg would be like as president of the United States. But I can opine with some certainty about his approach to the nation’s highest office – which would differ in nearly every aspect from that of his predecessor. At the top of the list would be prioritizing good character and moral rectitude – in the present tragically absent, in the future unambiguously evident.        

Hillary’s Revenge

Relationships between leaders and followers are grist for our mill. We readily acknowledge their importance. Much less discussed, though they are of equal importance, are relationships between leaders and leaders.

The thought comes to mind this morning, as I think of Hillary Clinton whose shot at the White House was badly impaired if not entirely derailed by the Trump campaign’s willingness to work with Russians. This the Mueller Report has proven beyond doubt.     

For most of the time Trump has been president Clinton has been silent. In the last couple of years, she has mostly retreated from public life. But on this morning after – after the publication of the Mueller Report – the question is what if anything will she do in response? Attention has been focused on the Democrats, especially those in Congress. How will they react? But at least as interesting and potentially as important is the response of Trump’s opponent during the 2016 presidential campaign – who we now know for certain was cheated out of the chance to become the first woman president of the United States.

Hillary Clinton has never been America’s sweetheart. The rap against her is that she’s always been too tough to be likeable, too wily to be trusted, too ambitious to be seemly. Moreover, if she spoke up now, even with massive objective evidence to support her claim, she would be promptly dismissed by those who saw her as just having an axe to grind. Finally, even if she stays silent, she can be rest assured that history will take her side. Trump has been proven a liar and a cheat and the Russians outrageous interventionists.

Still, in the wake of the Mueller Report I hope Hillary Clinton opens her mouth. I hope she says or does something as opposed to nothing. I hope she does not take what happened to her without one more time taking on the man who did it to her.    

President Pete? II (Trump in Reverse)

When Americans have a choice which leaders to put in place, their attention spans are short. All things being equal, we get easily bored or maybe it’s impatient with the leaders we have, and so we want the leaders we don’t have. This holds truer now than it did before, given the speed with which things change and information and ideas spread. (In 2018 the average tenure of CEOs of S&P 500 companies fell by fully one year, from six to five years.)

This does not hold true all the time. When the leader we have is exceptional and, or, when the times in which we live are exceptional, we’re content and sometimes even eager to stay with the leader we know, as opposed to the one we do not. It’s no accident that Americans were reluctant to let go of a great man, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even after more than a decade in office. After all, it was he who led the nation to recovery from a great depression and to victory in a great war.

But President Trump is no President Roosevelt – which explains in part why there’s every indication that many if not most Americans are restive. Trump’s preternatural ability to hold on to his base has been impressive if not astounding. But his base is not large, and he has not shown the slightest inclination to try to expand it. Hence, it’s possible if not probable that we’re in a time when a large part of the electorate will be looking for a presidential candidate who is altogether new and altogether different from the incumbant.

Several of the democratic contenders would seem to fit the bill. A woman from California with an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Kamala Harris. A skateboarding upstart from Texas, Beto O’Rourke. A longtime socialist from New England by way of Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders.  There’s no shortage, in short, of Democratic candidates who seem radically different from, diametric opposites to, Donald Trump.

But none I would suggest more than Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg is temperamentally and ideologically a moderate. Trump is not. Buttigieg is intellectually competent and curious. Trump is not. Buttigieg is demonstrably a moralist and a man of faith. Trump is not. Buttigieg is from a small town in America’s heartland. Trump is not. Buttigieg served in the American military, including a tour abroad. Trump did not. Buttigieg is informed and articulate. Trump is not. Buttigieg is openly gay and speaks of his spouse with deep love and immense respect. Trump is not and does not. Buttigieg is open and disclosing. Trump is not. Buttigieg is unfailingly polite and the discourse in which he engages is reliably civil. Trump is not and does not. Buttigieg seeks to calm whatever the roiling waters. Trump does not. Buttigieg is a unifier. Trump is not. Buttigieg is Trump in reverse. Trump is Trump.

President Pete? – I (Experience and Expertise)

This is the first of a series of three short posts on “Mayor Pete.” On Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who yesterday formally declared his candidacy for president of the United States.

On page one of my most recent book, Professionalizing Leadership, I wrote that one of the peculiarities of Donald Trump’s ascendency to the presidency was his being elected “without any political, military, or government experience or expertise whatsoever.” In fact, the book is about how critically important it is to conceive of leadership as a profession. As a profession for which any candidate for any leadership role should have been reasonably rigorously educated, trained, and developed.

Which raises this question about Buttigieg: Is he qualified? Given his young years (he is 37), and his relatively limited experience as mayor of a medium sized city, does he match up? The comparison to Trump is easy – that’s how low was his bar. But is Mayor Pete good enough in his own right? Expert enough, experienced enough for serious voters to take him seriously as candidate for the American presidency?

Buttigieg’s relative youth raises the question of what should be the professional qualifications for president of the United States? In keeping with my earlier quote, I’ll stick with “experience” and “expertise” – presidential candidates should be in some ways demonstrably experienced, and in some ways demonstrably expert. Bottom line in this case? Buttigieg measures up.

  • He has been supremely well educated, not only at home but abroad.
  • He has served in the American military, as a Naval Intelligence officer, including a tour in Afghanistan.
  • He has had exposure to and experience in the private sector, having worked for three years for McKinsey, the famed management consulting firm.
  • And he is in his second term as mayor, having been first elected in 2011 and reelected in 2015.

One could reasonably argue that Buttigieg has packed into a relatively few years a string of experiences and accomplishments that most of us will never attain. If you throw into the mix the narrative of a man who passed the personal and political litmus test of marrying another man, you have a presidential candidate whose professional qualifications cannot legitimately be thrown into question.

Extracting Trump

Getting rid of bad leaders – exchanging them for better ones – is usually exceedingly hard. It’s exceedingly hard in business as well as politics, exceedingly hard in Russia as well as Tunisia, exceedingly hard in 2019 as it was in 1919.

There are reasons for this, only two, and they’re simple. The first is that bad leaders generally prefer, strongly, to stay rather than go. They have tasted power and authority and their appetite was not satiated, rather it was whetted. The second is that followers generally have no easy-to-see recourse. They are too busy, distracted, or alienated sufficiently to care. Or they are too disorganized to be effective. Or they cannot figure out how to push against those more powerful than they. Or they are too scared to make a move – scared they will put themselves at personal risk, political risk, or professional risk.  In consequence of action that is ineffective, or of no action at all, bad leaders linger. They linger far longer than they should because there is no easy way to remove them.

Democracies are presumed to protect people against precisely this dysfunction. Free and open elections, held at regular intervals, are intended to mitigate against bad leadership by providing a legal recourse, a way, say, every two years or four for the electorate to throw the rascal out. To vote out of office any elected official who does not measure up.

In the United States of America this system has worked reasonably well. This is not to say that all our leaders have been good or, for that matter, that all our followers have had equal voice. Rather it is to say that most of the time both leaders and followers have abided by the rules of the game. Specifically, when elected officials lose at the ballot box, or are in some other way forced out, they usually, reliably, have taken their leave. Notable case in point: when President Richard Nixon realized that he was likely to be impeached, he chose voluntarily to resign.

But what would happen if leaders and followers, or even just some leaders and followers, did not abide by the rules of the game? If they resisted the rules of democratic governance rather than played by them?

I raise these questions not as an abstract exercise, but rather because I think it likely that they will arise sooner, not later. It is improbable that President Donald Trump will be impeached. Instead, his political opponents, most obviously the Democrats, seem to be waiting until the 2020 election to push out Trump by voting Trump out. Their intention though is based on two key assumptions. The first is that whoever the Democratic candidate for president in 2020 will win. The second is that if Trump loses the election, he, like his predecessors, will go graciously.

If you buy this second assumption, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Seems to me that the only way to extract Trump from the White House without him fiercely resisting – by, say, insisting the election was rigged and demanding recourse – is to beat him in a landslide. To impose on him a defeat so complete, so unambiguous, that his tantrum will be in vain.   

Caro on the Powerful – and the Powerless

Robert Caro is arguably America’s preeminent biographer. His masterpieces of political biography include one tome on Master Builder Robert Moses and, so far, four (with a final one yet to come) on President Lyndon Johnson. For his accomplishments Caro has won every significant literary prize his country has to offer.

Instead of striving in his early eighties to complete volume five on Johnson, Caro took a detour. He’s just published Working, which describes in depth his experiences as a researcher and writer.   

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour about his most recent book, Caro said that after writing about power for more than a half century, he had learned this.  

I learned that it’s not enough to write about the … men who wield [power], you have to write also about the powerless. What is the effect on people without power who are affected by government? Either their lives are changed for the better or for the worse. Either Robert Moses or Lyndon Jonson brought them something, or they stood in their way, ruined them. And I [came to] feel that you have to show, as I said, not just the powerful but the powerless – otherwise books about power are somewhat incomplete.  

The Tragedy of – the Irony of – Egypt

At least I hedged my bets. Though in my 2012 book The End of Leadership, I described Egypt as perhaps the most important example of the promise of the Arab Spring, I did add that it was “too early to conclude much if anything about the recent upheavals in the Middle East.” Still, I, like many others, thought it possible if not probable that what was happening in Egypt was foretelling a future in which authoritarianism in the region would be out, and democracy in.  

To the contrary. The Arab Spring foretold a future all right, just not the one that the throngs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (as well as many of the experts) originally envisioned. As it turned out, no country was more of a harbinger of the recent trend toward total control by leaders of followers than Egypt.

The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is far more of an authoritarian than was his three decades-long predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. In fact, Sisi is not an authoritarian leader, he is a totalitarian one. He governs with the assistance of a small, secret, claque of advisors, mostly military men. He controls every institution and organization of government, including the courts and intelligence agencies.  He reaches into the nation’s economy, to keep under his baleful eye every center of power that could possibly compete with his own. He completely contains the media, old media and new, threatening with imprisonment anyone who in any way dissents. He dominates the arts, to be certain to staunch the free flow of information and ideas.  And he has set himself up as an exemplar to be emulated – in order to exclude everyone and everything remotely alien and everyone and everything remotely threatening.

History attests this cannot last. There will come a day when the roof blows off the house that Sisi built. Till then though, Egypt remains a dangerous place for anyone unwilling slavishly to toe the line.  Till then though, Egypt remains a grim reminder that movements and moments like the Arab Spring can as well morph into cruel ironies as great victories.