Must be in the ether. In this past week’s Economist (10/11) is another article similar to the one referred to in my most recent blog. This one, by “Schumpeter,” is titled “Beware the Angry Birds.” It makes the same point as does the Times piece by Steven Davidoff Solomon, though for a different reason. “Bosses’ careers are more vulnerable than ever” in this case not because of shareholder activists, but because they live “in the social media age.”
We’re back to technology which, as I pointed out a couple of years ago in The End of Leadership, is changing forever the balance of power between leaders and followers.
The Economist: “Today’s bosses still need to worry about the … press. But as big a threat to their careers these days is the risk of being pecked by Twitter’s swarm of angry birds. Thanks to the digital revolution, chief executives now live in glass houses. An ill-judged remark can be broadcast to the world in an instant. An unwise ‘reply all’ can provide sensitive information to a competitor. An exasperated complaint in the midst of a crisis can seal your doom.”
As I wrote previously, business leaders are now like political leaders. For that matter, they are like virtually all other leaders – vulnerable to arrows shot from every direction. What seems finally to be changing is the growing recognition that things now are different – even for chief executive officers. Turns out that all their money and power cannot protect them against the tide of the time. To the contrary. Just like leaders in other sectors they “make perfect click-bait.”
For some years I have written about “the end of leadership” – about leaders becoming weaker while followers, others, are becoming stronger. This shift has been most evident in the political realm, where in the second decade of the 21st century democratically elected leaders everywhere have a famously hard time getting others to go along. Even the most powerful political leaders seem more often controlled by other players or, for that matter, by the course of events, than in control of them.
This shift has been less obvious in the corporate realm or, at least, less screamingly obvious. In other words, while there has been for some time evidence that what applies to government applies equally to business – and of course to other sectors as well, such as education and religion – the change has been more subtle, less public and less easy, therefore, to see.
This has not, however, meant that business is exempt – a case that was made particularly persuasively in yesterday’s New York Times, in an article by Steven Davidoff Solomon. I’ve provided the link, so need here for detail. Suffice it to cite a few lines from the piece, which argues in no uncertain terms that the heyday of corporate leadership and management is over.
- “Corporate America may try to hide from its shareholders, but two recent shake-ups … show that escape is no longer possible.”
- “Corporate America, previously ruled by chief executives and boards, is racing to do shareholders’ bidding.”
- “As shareholder activists, backed by institutional shareholders, grow stronger, no company is safe.”
It’s a striking argument not because what Davidoff Solomon says is new – but because he says it so forcefully. If he is to be believed, business leaders have just about caught up with political leaders. Like the latter, the former better watch their backs at every turn.
On the surface, the anger, disappointment and resentment that fuel the continuing social and political unrest in Ferguson, Missouri would seem to have little or nothing in common with the anger, disappointment and resentment that fuel the continuing social and political unrest in Hong Kong. After all, the former is situated in the United States of America, while the latter is a region of the People’s Republic of China. Moreover, since the stories in both cities are far from over, how they will end remains obviously to be seen. One could go relatively well, the other badly.
Still, it is the similarities between them – between what has happened, is happening, in the small American metropolis and in the far larger Asian one – that are much the more striking. They are a reminder that in this second decade of the 21st century the impulse to equity, the demand for democracy, the fight for autonomy are transcendent. They equally are a reminder that resistance to these insistences persists – which is why we are where we are and they are where they are.
Similarities Between the Cities
- Dissatisfactory Leaders
- Dissatisfied Followers
- Disgruntled Public
- Democracy Denied
- Disorganized Dealing
- Distant Danger
- Persistent Protest
- Meager Mediation
- Uncertain Outcome
- Lingering Lamentation
Used to be hard. Used to be hard to imagine the map as something fungible, malleable, swiftly and easily changeable. Used to be hard even to conceive of except under extreme circumstances – such as all-out regional or even global war.
But that was then. This is now. Now the world is, manifestly, different. This year alone, just in the last few months, have been not one but two changes in the map. Moreover neither of these changes is minor, inconsequential. Both are major and both have significant geopolitical implications.
At least it can be said of the first – the seizure by Russia of Crimea from Ukraine – that it was done in the conventional way. Russia is a country, and a powerful one at that, with a national government and an identifiable head of state. It is, in other words, in the old, familiar mold. It is a state actor with its own national interests, which it will act on unless somehow held in check, either literally by, say, a credible threat of the use of force, or by international norms such as respect for national boundaries.
The second change in the map in 2014 is of course the de facto obliteration of the border between Syria and Iraq – and, indeed, for all we now know, the obliteration of both countries, period. Unlike the first change in the map, this one was engendered not by a state actor, but by a non-state actor that, until a couple of months ago, most Americans had never even heard of. It is telling that even now there is no agreement on the name. Some refer to this non-state actor as ISIS, and some, especially members of the administration, call it ISIL. Significantly this non-state actor refers to itself as a state – the Islamic State or, simply, IS. It obviously assumes at least for public consumption that the map has already been redrawn. It obviously assumes a done deal.
So far the world has been powerless to change the map back. So far the world has been powerless to stop both a conventional state actor and a decidedly unconventional non-state actor from redrawing the map as they see fit. A sobering reminder as if we needed one that the world has changed and that for all of America’s military might, it has not been able to preclude the map from changing in ways that are at odds with its own national interests.
On Wednesday, October 1 the New York Times carried a front page article titled, “Hong Kong Protests are Leaderless But Orderly.” On Thursday, October 2 the New York Times carried a front page article titled, “At 17, Setting Off Protests that Roil Hong Kong.”
On Wednesday, October 1 the New York Times carried a front page article that claimed, “Here is a movement without a clear leader, one in which crowds of largely young people are organizing themselves and acting on their own, overtaking months of planning by veterans of the city’s pro-democracy camp.” On Thursday, October 2 the New York Times carried a front page article that claimed, “The slight teenager with heavy rectangular glasses and a bowl cut stood above the ocean of protesters who had engulfed downtown Hong Kong….It was Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old student activist who has been at the center of the democracy movement…. He played a pivotal role in setting off the demonstrations of the past week.”
To anyone with even the slightest interest in leadership and followership this constitutes a major discrepancy. On one day the stunning series of events in Hong Kong are reportedly “leaderless.” On another day, one day later, the stunning series of events in Hong Kong are reportedly the handiwork of a small number of people, Mr. Wong above all, who has become “something of a political star,” surrounded by “admiring supporters” and “mobbed by television cameras and reporters.”
How can this happen? How can the best newspaper in the world contradict itself so quickly and completely on on the question of how the most important pro-democracy protests in years came about? Several explanations come to mind. Maybe it was that the paper has just announced that it was reducing its newsroom staff by one hundred people – a major body blow to the Times organization. Or maybe it was that something significant came to light between October 1st and 2nd – something that changed the narrative. Or maybe it was decided by reporters among others that the best way to frame this messy story was through a single individual, one who could be identified, named, and vividly described “as a hybrid of a solemn politician and a bashful teenage sensation.”
The full story behind this Big Story will not be known for years to come. But what’s clear even now is that neither the Times nor, it was thought, the American people could tolerate for long the idea that every now and then ordinary people, followers not leaders, take matters into their own hands.