Standards

What follows is the text of a keynote speech that I delivered on October 27, 2018, at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association (ILA) meeting in West Palm Beach.

One day, late last August, the New York Times printed and posted several articles that signal this speech on Standards.

When Erin Schrode ran for Congress in 2016 she woke to find tens of thousands of messages in her e mail, on her phone, and posted to her various other social media. One said, “All would laugh with glee as they gang raped her and then bashed her bagel-eating brains in.” Another said, “It’d be amusing to see her take twenty or so for 8 or 10 hours,” again suggesting gang-rape. In the case of Erin Schrode at least, the abuses – a toxic sludge of online trolling steeped in misogyny and anti-Semitism, that also included photo-shopped images of her face stretched into a Nazi lampshade, and references to “pre-heating the ovens” – never stopped.

In this election cycle, in 2018, the abuses against women in politics have only increased. A Democrat running for a congressional seat in Iowa, Kim Weaver, gave up her campaign against the Republican incumbent when a neo-Nazi web site published an article about her titled, “Meet the Whore Who’s Running Against Steven King.”

On the same day, it was August 26th to be precise, the Times published another article on a different subject altogether, that nevertheless was all about, you got it, the erosion of standards that in recent years has gone from creep to gallop. “Trump Assails Legal System,” ran the headline, “Eroding Trust.” Whatever you might think of President Donald Trump, it is inarguable that in the last year he has relentlessly criticized the Justice Department; fired some of its top officials; questioned the integrity of prosecutors leading the Russia investigation; mercilessly demeaned and defiled his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions; and, more generally, recklessly bandied about terms with possible legal implications such as “flip,” “witch hunt,” “treason,” and “lock her up.” The president’s flagrant flaunting of respect for the law, and for that matter for anything resembling civil discourse more generally, threatens increasingly not only to further erode faith in our legal system, but, more importantly, to further erode public trust in the various pillars of American democracy.

I hasten to add the American presidency is not the only institution so diminished. As we recently witnessed, the Senate has dropped the rules of decorum that for most of American history were the hallmark of what once was referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” And it manifestly shed some simple but, one would have thought, essential standards such as veracity, and the virtues of the rules of evidence. That the Supreme Court has itself recently been diminished in the eyes of many if not most Americans, goes nearly without saying.

Nor are standards being eroded only in the public sector. As that same issue of the Times testified, the private sector contributes mightily to the sense in the US that something’s off, that something – that everything – is in decline. There is the growing suspicion that a few behemoth companies in several of the nation’s key industries suppress both wages and growth. There is the growing suspicion that a few behemoth technology companies control too much of our individual lives, and intrude on too much of our collective lives. And, there is the growing suspicion that those few at the top see nothing wrong with their being infinitely better off even than those in the middle, and certainly than those at the bottom. Since 1978 the average American paycheck increased 11.2%. During this same period the average CEO’s pay increased 937%. Even the American Dream has effectively vanished – or, better, moved north, to Canada. Moving from the bottom 5th of income level to the top 5th, is now twice as likely to happen in Canada as in the US.

Nor, obviously, have standards been eroded only in the United States. Again, in that very same issue of the NY Times was an article that described the Irish Catholic Church as being “in tatters;” that alluded to related, wretched, recent abuses uncovered in Chile, as well as in the US; and that described a Pope, Pope Francis obviously, who was repeatedly reduced to voicing regret at the legacy of abuse in the Catholic Church worldwide.

Of course, the Church is not the only institution that has been so charged. Moreover, one could argue that the revelations of abuse of minors, which cascaded beginning in 2002, are helping to restore standards, not abetting their diminishment still further. But it cannot be denied that the revelations themselves, and the Church’s real reluctance fully to face the implications thereof, have contributed significantly to the sense that what we used to assume were generally high standards of behavior by people in positions of authority – whether priests or teachers, judges or generals, private sector executives or public sector politicians – was an illusion. Where once we thought, or perhaps foolishly presumed, were generally high standards of personal and professional conduct, now we know this was an illusion.

This is not, of course, to say that every leader is bad, painted with a sullied brush. Rather it is to say that we have a stronger sense that people, all people, no matter their status or station, are complicated: a mix of passions, proclivities and personalities; drives, motives and incentives; sensitivities, sensibilities, and standards. Additionally, now we now know that in some cases were no standards at all, at least not as we conventionally think of them. No standards at the level of the institution (think Volkswagen or Wells Fargo; the Department of the Interior or the city of Flint, MI); and no standards at the level of the individual (think Travis Kalanick, Paul Manafort, or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin).

Since I am speaking today to you, members of the International Leadership Association, let me state directly that leaders – defined for the present purpose as those in positions of power and authority – have contributed mightily to this decline in the erosion of standards or, at a minimum, to the perceived decline.

For our purpose. the reasons for this are twofold. The first are changes in our culture, arguably especially those that relate to levels of transparency. We now tend to know, we now tend to demand to know, the details of dalliances of presidents of the United States. We now tend to know, we now tend to demand to know, the drinking habits and sexual proclivities of nominees for the Supreme Court. We now tend to know, we now demand to know, the intricacies of intimacies practiced by men in position of power and authority on women who are not. (And yes, sex plays an important role in this cultural shift….)  We now tend to know, we now demand to know, the truths about taxes and finances; about monies stashed at home or abroad; about hidden bank accounts, secret payoffs, and shady dealings.

The level of transparency is now such that people with zero power, authority, or influence feel more entitled to be told whatever there is to be told about those who rank higher than they. We now have victims of clerical abuse stepping up and willingly testifying to what was done to them when they were children and adolescents. We now have investigative reporters unearthing dirt on some of the highest and mightiest of our species. We now have women coming out and taking on men in ways previously unheard of. The result is that leaders have been increasingly demystified. Something of a sea change!

The extreme changes in our culture have, of course, been aided and abetted by the extreme changes in our technologies. I need hardly point out to this group the impact of social media on patterns of dominance and deference, on the dynamics between those who apparently are powerful and those who apparently are powerless. The #MeToo movement, arguably led by the work of three investigative journalists, is just one example, albeit a striking one, of the intersections of which I speak. The #MeToo movement is all about sex; or, if you prefer, it is all about dominance and submission; or, if you prefer, it is all about power and the lack thereof. It is, in any case, about behaviors that went nearly entirely unreported for most of human history but that have become, only recently, grist for our collective mill.

The fact that sexual harassment and sexual abuse, along with other nasty proclivities such as virulent racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, have, to a degree, been outed, certainly in the United States, is attributable to changes in the culture. But, this outing would have been impossible absent the presence of social media, a technology that has enabled, indeed encouraged, an uncontainable contagion. There is a reason that authoritarian systems are hellbent now on controlling the internet!

Sad to say that the severe erosion of leadership – the destructive, dramatic decline in standards, in the conviction that the US is exceptional in its moral core, in trust in leading individuals and in the institutions that they profess to lead – has coincided completely with the rise of, the burgeoning of, what some of you in this audience know that I refer to as the leadership industry. The two axes intersect almost exactly. The decline of the one, leadership, intersects with the rise of the other, the leadership industry.

I, at least, think this must, or at least it should, give us pause. I am not, of course, suggesting that the leadership industry – of which virtually every one of us here in attendance is a card-carrying member – is responsible for this decline. What I am saying though is that, manifestly, we have been unable to stop it, to stem the tarnished tide. We, we in the leadership industry, continue to do our thing, while the context within which inevitably we are embedded testifies to the inability of leaders – most strikingly, most sadly, in liberal democracies – to make followers feel that they are being led wisely and well.

While leaders in other sectors are, as indicated, not immune, the decline of political leaders in liberal democracies, especially in the last five years or so, has been especially painful to witness. Nearly no nation has been immune to the trend. The US as an example, under President Donald Trump, is obvious. Great Britain has struggled, is struggling, mightily, to its indefinite detriment, with the question of how to manage Brexit. France’s Emanuel Macron, just 18 months ago widely perceived a boy wonder, has endured a strikingly rapid and dramatic decline in his approval ratings. Angela Merkel, for years a stalwart of Western leadership, is manifestly on the wane and on her way out. Sweden, in most of our eyes a paragon of Western virtues, is enduring a crisis of governance and confidence. Europe’s eastern countries – such as Austria, Hungary, and Poland – have had their democracies put to the test by shifts toward populism, nationalism, and some would argue flat out authoritarianism. In our own hemisphere, Brazil and Venezuela testify to how close we are to various, dangerous precipices. And nations that less than ten years ago had shown signs of loosening the reins of authority – nations such as Russia, China, Egypt, and Turkey – have in more recent years reverted to tightening them. Each of these countries, and then some, are more oppressive and repressive than they were a decade ago. Standards of human decency, human rights, have not ascended; they have descended.

Which brings us inevitably to two hard questions. The first is general: How and why during the last decade did we arrive at this sorry pass? As I suggested, larger forces are at play here, such as changes in culture and technology. There is, additionally, the overarching trajectory of human history, and the various cycles of human history, to which I often in my teaching and writing refer. The second question is specific. What has the leadership industry – specifically those of us deeply dedicated to a well-intentioned association such as this one, the International Leadership Association, on this occasion justly celebrating its 20th anniversary – done to address the deep, steep decline in trust in what we might broadly call the leadership class?  What in other words, have we, we putative leadership experts, contributed to the improvement of the human condition during a time when leading in liberal democracies, indeed leading everywhere, seems more complex, complicated, convoluted, and confounding a task than ever? How have we been responsible, accountable?

I do not for one moment question the proposition that as individuals, and in groups, those of us in the International Leadership Association have done good work.

What I do question though is whether the work that we have done is good enough. What I do question though is whether the good work that we did do is being adequately disseminated and actually implemented. What I do question though is whether as individuals and especially as a collective we have done enough to address the decline in standards to which I here refer. What I do question though is whether we have taken a good, hard look at the work we do as a critical mass of leadership experts, leadership professionals. What I do question though is whether there is more that we can do, more that we should do, to elevate leaders in the eyes of their followers. What I do question though is whether there is more that we can do, more that we should do, to raise the standards to which leaders are held. What I do question though is whether all of us, including those of us putative experts and educators in this organization, the International Leadership Association, have done the very best we know how to help leaders, and leader learners, do better.

Let me provide just one quick but telling example. My colleague and friend, Denny Roberts, recently brought to my attention the fact that in 2012 the Board of the International Leadership Association was presented with a White Paper that called for “more conscious attention to both legitimacy and accountability of leadership as a field of study within higher education.” This White Paper is a sensible, smart, serious attempt to apply standards to leadership learning, standards that include steps such as internal program reviews, external program reviews, certification, and accreditation. But, as I further understand it, the ILA Board tabled the idea at the time, which is where the White Paper, as of now, still sits. One line from the concluding section of this paper reads, “It is the recommendation of the Formalized Program Review Task Force that, as part of its offerings/services, the International Leadership Association establish external formalized program reviews.”

I want to be clear here. I was not part of this White Paper Task Force. And I was not privy to any of the relevant discussions either within the ILA or outside it. I am therefore in no position to know what happened or why. But I raise the subject because it pertains, directly, to my general concern about setting standards for leaders, and to my specific concern about what the ILA could do, should do, to foster the establishment and indeed the implementation of such standards. As if it were, or aspired to become, a professional association.

Some of you in this audience will know that I have spent nearly all my professional life in Leadership Studies. That is, my primary interest has been in leadership as an area of intellectual inquiry. But as a few of you in this audience likely additionally know, in my last book, Professionalizing Leadership, I took a turn. I turned from Leadership Studies to Leadership Development, specifically to the matter of how we teach how to lead.

Why did I do this? Why after all this time did I turn to the question of how we teach how to lead? The answers are simple. First because I did not like what I saw – the unrelenting decline in trust in the leadership class, particularly in liberal democracies. Second because I did not like what I saw – the failure of too many leadership teachers, leadership administrators, leadership facilitators, leadership coaches, leadership consultants, leadership you-name- it, to raise their, our, game and to insist that other leadership experts do the same. In short, I am disturbed by our collective failure to raise the standards to which we adhere. Or, indeed, as a collective to establish any standards at all.

I will not here reiterate the argument I make in Professionalizing Leadership. In fact, I am aware that a few of you recently debated the merits – and deficits – of what I wrote. I will, however, reiterate the book’s overarching point. That unless we leadership experts take on some of the trappings of professionals – say doctors or lawyers – we endanger our reputations, which in any case are tenuous at best. This is not to say that professionalism has spared doctors, for instance, from the decline in trust, or from, as Tom Nichols put it, the death of expertise. To the contrary. The medical profession is also experiencing growing distrust. But not at the same rate as the leadership class, not even close. Moreover, while our level of trust in doctors has declined, most of us do not hesitate even now to go to a medical professional with a medical question or concern. We know that, generally, our doctors have been well educated and well trained, and that throughout their professional lives most will be required to continue to learn. And so, generally, we deem them both reasonably ethical and reasonably effective.

Leaders, in contrast – the military being a major exception to this general rule – are not required to provide even a scintilla of evidence that they have been educated to lead, or trained to lead, or developed as leaders. Moreover, they are not asked to meet any kind of requirement, or to provide any sort of certification of excellence – even of competence. Ironically, we do typically require evidence of competence from our hair dressers and truck drivers, from our dog groomers and coal miners and day care workers. We do not, though, require any such evidence from our leaders – not even from those who would aspire to ascend to the nation’s highest political office.

Would you believe that it is possible – hypothetically, theoretically, ostensibly and supposedly possible – to become President of the United States of America without any political, or government, or military experience or expertise whatsoever?!

 

Follow the Fuehrer

Some of you will have seen Leni Riefenstahl’s classic, mesmerizing documentary, “Triumph of the Will.” It’s a real time film of a humungous Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in 1934, one and a half years after Adolf Hitler came to power.

Hitler is, of course, the star. Though he does not say a word until well into the film, he ends dominating it, ultimately concluding it with a riveting speech. His most trusted followers, especially those who have been with him since the start, since the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, are also prominent players. We see them throughout the film; occasionally some even get briefly to speak.

But to Riefenstahl’s everlasting credit, “Triumph of the Will” focuses as much on ordinary Germans, on followers, as she does on leaders, on the Nazi elite. From the beginning of the film to the end there are countless shots – some in closeup, some at a remove – of German men, women, and, yes, children cheering on their Fuhrer, their leader, with an eagerness and an enthusiasm, indeed with an unmitigated joy, that to all appearances is boundless. There is scant sense during these early days of the Third Reich that Hitler’s followers – including close disciples, rank and file foot soldiers, wealthy industrialists, Christian clergy, hard-working farmers and day laborers, mothers and babies; all coming to crowd the streets and hang from the windows to catch even a brief glimpse of the Great Man – had even the slightest reservation, the slightest doubt about who they would follow to the end of their lives, no matter what.

Riefenstahl’s film is propaganda. So, naturally, she confined her cast nearly completely to those who were rabid enthusiasts. But, even now, more than three quarters of a century later, there is no mistaking her message. The leader’s, the Fuehrer’s, Hitler’s, capacity to control depended absolutely on his followers, the German people. They followed him willing, gladly, with a passion that rivaled their pleasure.

“Triumph of the Will” came recently to mind. In fact, the movie has come to mind several times in the last few years, but there are some moments when the similarities between past and present frankly frighten.

Two examples. The first when during a rally in Mississippi Trump mocked, ridiculed, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who, the preceding week, had painfully and painstakingly testified that as a 15-year old girl she had been sexually assaulted by the Supreme Court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh. What was so scary was not so much Trump as the crowd behind him, consisting of fervid, fervent followers, who, the more outrageous and offensive their leader’s behavior, the more they hooted and hollered their approval.

The second example was just a couple of days ago, at another campaign rally, this one in Montana. Trump had come to extol the virtues of Representative Greg Gianforte, who a year earlier was sentenced for having assaulted a reporter. Trump warned the gleeful crowd behind him to “never wrestle” Gianforte, and then added, “Anybody that can do a body-slam, That’s my kind of guy.” This in the immediate wake of the disappearance of another journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian columnist for the Washington Post. Need I add that Trump’s followers ate it up, cheering with great gusto the president’s suggestion that violence against a member of the press is not to be condemned but condoned?!

Our obsession with the president is as understandable as inevitable. But more clearly and completely to understand what the hell is happening in this country at this moment do what Riefenstahl did. Pay close attention, pay equal attention, to the rest of the cast. From acolytes and activists, to bystanders and isolates, it is, after all, followers who make Fuehrers possible.

 

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/