Our fixation on leadership is as strong as ever.
- The private sector: In the latest such deal, the Bank of America (BOA) and the Justice Department agreed to a nearly $17 billion settlement relating to charges that the bank had duped investors into buying toxic mortgage securities. The deal does not do what outraged critics wanted it to do: it does not punish individuals for wrongdoing. Leaders in other words, those who led and managed the banks in question, have generally been getting off Scott-free. (An exception to this rule may be Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countrywide Financial, which was acquired by BOA.) I do not denigrate this position: punishing institutions is hardly the same as punishing individuals. This is not, however, to say that no blame is being allocated. The BOA deal is the largest government settlement by any company in American history. So, much as some of us would like to see some previously in charge behind bars, to say that everyone is being held blameless is plain wrong.
- The public sector: Of all the observations that one might make about the recent events in Ferguson, MO, for a student of leadership none was as striking as the stunning lack of it. It was, if you will, a field day for followers, for leaders were nowhere in evidence. In short order, some of the old guard, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among them, parachuted in to town – to little or no obvious effect. Government officials in turn, local, county, and state, including the governor and the mayor, all sent conflicting signals, with no single political leader emerging to take charge. Nor did either the white community or the black one have in place a person or persons who clearly was a spokesperson. If anyone at all was, is, leader-like in style and substance, it was Captain Ronald Johnson, the black Missouri State Highway Patrol official who finally was designated responsible for security. Unlike nearly everyone else, Johnson was able to calm tensions, and he was equally able to engage blacks and whites in civilized discourse. But Johnson’s success in his unaccustomed role was a reflection not only of his leadership skills, but of the paucity of same among those from whom it legitimately was presumed.
- At home: Headline on the front page of the New York Times: “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way” (8/16/14). ISIS is turning out what even administration officials now concede is a threat “beyond any we have seen.” The question that only history will decide is whether President Barack Obama has been in any way, to any degree responsible for the situation in which the United States of America, and for that matter the rest of the Western world, now finds itself. We are a declared target of a terrorist group that has morphed into something akin to a country. Our tendency, not surprisingly, is as it has always been: to blame the person in charge for what happened. Whether this is fair or not is almost beside the point. The point is that ISIS materialized on Obama’s watch and that, rightly or wrongly, it is he who will be held to account for how this turns out.
- Abroad: What’s perhaps most remarkable about ISIS is that until recently it was unknown and unheard of. Until this summer nearly no American even knew the name ISIS, because even to those in the know it seemed not much more than yet another group of Middle Eastern terrorists, similar to those already familiar. But overnight or so it seemed this band of near unknowns became something else entirely: they became leaders who were able able through various means – political, military, and financial – to force the United States to respond to them in kind, by force. What’s obvious even now is that in the 21st century the old rules of the game no longer apply. Instead a very small knot of very dangerous people can compel a global superpower to engage in a military mission – in spite of its best laid plans.
Note: I’ll be hitting the road for several weeks…. So this is my last post for the duration.
The violence in Ferguson, MO – which continues to spew sporadically in the wake of the police shooting of a black teenager – raises the question of whether it is at all useful. Does violence of this sort yield benefits to those who stoke it? Or are the authorities, from the President on down, right to try, day in day out, to quell it? Just yesterday Obama weighed in again, saying that while he understood the “passions and anger” in Ferguson, they served only to “raise tensions and stir chaos.” They undermined, he said, rather than advanced justice.
Be that as it may, let’s be clear: there is a long tradition of threatening, advocating, and defending violence when peaceful methods of protest, or for that matter no protests at all, seem inadequate to the task of creating change. To illustrate the point I quote from a single source, Nelson Mandela. The following words are his, excerpts from a far longer speech delivered in 1964, from a dock in a courtroom in Pretoria, South Africa.
I cite them not, obviously, to promote violence. Nor do I intend to suggest that South Africa in the early 1960s is analogous to America in the early 2000s. But Mandela’s defense of his own use of violence serves to remind that it has played a critical role in human history – including, I might add, in American history. Needless to say that the argument in support of resorting to violence has rarely been so carefully considered or so eloquently made. And, needless to say that from a distance what in Ferguson distinguishes criminality from strategy is impossible to say. Still, the point remains the same: under certain circumstances violence can be considered a political means necessary to achieve a political end.
Nelson Mandela, from his his three-hour speech, “I Am Prepared To Die.”
“Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism …. Second, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy….
It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle…. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the Government had left us with no other choice…. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did….”
Does Jeff Bezos give a damn that over 1,000 writers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have now joined with over 900 authors from the United States to protest Amazon’s business practices? Does Jeff Bezos give a damn that over 1,000 writers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have now similarly signed a letter that claims that Amazon “manipulates recommendation lists”? Does Jeff Bezos give a damn that over 1,000 writers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have now charged Amazon with making false statements about books put out by Bonnier, a publisher which, like Hachette, is taking on Bezos’s behemoth over e-book prices?
If he doesn’t, he should. First, you never want to get into a pissing match with large numbers of your suppliers. Second, you never want to get embroiled in a battle that blackens your name – over and over and over again. And third Bezos should know better than anyone else that in 2014 complaints are contagious – if they’re legit they go viral. The likelihood, in short, that Bezos can crush these now nearly 2,000 authors without getting his hands even a little bit bloody is small.
Followers Refusing to Follow
It was an arresting sight – to those of us who still read the papers on paper. Last Sunday two full pages of the New York Times were filled with names. Some 900 names, so the print was small. But there they were, some of them famous, some not, all of them belonging to authors lining up, signing up to protest one of the most visionary of American leaders, the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos.
Like other tech titans approximately of his generation, Bezos has been an American darling, not only because of his technological genius but because of his acumen as a businessman. In relatively short order, Bezos built Amazon into one of the greatest operations on the planet. So for years he was untouchable: we watched in amazement and admiration as he grew his company beyond anyone’s wildest early imaginings.
Now however the worm has turned, at least slightly. First, the size of Amazon’s losses (some $800 million this quarter alone) has raised eyebrows, questions about whether, as the Times put it, “Amazon’s money-losing ways are finally catching up with it.” Second, one major publisher, Hachette, has had the nerve publicly to take on Amazon, to challenge in no uncertain terms some of its most onerous practices. And third… this. This spectacle of many of America’s best known writers – Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Robert Caro, Malcolm Gladwell, and Michael Lewis among them – standing alongside many of their lesser known counterparts to pressure Bezos to settle its pricing battle with Hachette. to “stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.”
By definition writers are a lonely lot. Or, at least, they do not work in groups and they do not travel in packs. This though is an exception to the general rule. This is an example of an assemblage that normally is disparate and disorganized joining forces and getting organized. For the purposes of this protest they have grown a leader – Douglas Preston, who publishes with Hachette – and they have become a group that has a name, Authors United. But the 909 people who signed the letter to lobby Bezos have no common cause – except this one. The fact that they became a collective to oppose the very man on whom they depend for sales of their wares sends a signal that Bezos would do well to heed.
Emily Rafferty, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced last week that she was stepping down after ten years as head. Ms. Rafferty got it right – after some time as a leader this time ought to be brought to a close. There’s no clock to signal the moment is right to get out; there’s no chime to sound the end has come. But ten years – a decade as a leader – likely is as good a span as any for most leaders in most situations to call it quits.
Some years ago I wrote a book titled Bad Leadership. As I was writing the book I realized how relatively frequently people begin as good leaders but, after some extended period of time, become bad leaders. Juan Antonio Samaranch, former head of the International Olympic Committee, was such a leader. And so was William Aramony, former head of the United Way of America. As I wrote about both men, I realized that during their prolonged periods of maximum power and authority something went wrong. Both men had led their organizations for some 20 years, roughly the first half as good leaders and the second as bad leaders.
The reasons for going bad vary, of course. Moreover none of this is to say that leaders necessarily deteriorate after some number of years. But it is to suggest that the frequency of such a trajectory is unsettling. And it is to suggest that in the second decade of the 21st century, when the world is changing at a famously rapid clip, consideration should always be given to how long a leader should lead.
Leaders in business are by no means immune to this general rule. But leaders in government are even more vulnerable to abusing their office simply by clinging to it for too long. Robert Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe for over 25 years. Hun Sen has been prime minister of Cambodia for nearly 30 years. Vladimir Putin has already been either President or Prime Minister of Russia for 14 years and is promising, threatening, to stay in place for many more years to come.
This tendency to become addicted to power is in evidence also in Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has “only” been in office 11 years. But he has started to clamp down on his opponents, harden his views, and hold on to his position with the rough equivalent of dear life. What’s especially interesting about Erdogan is how clearly he demonstrates, yet again, this tendency for leaders to deteriorate over long periods of time.
Pari Dukovic observes in The New Yorker that while Erdogan is now an autocrat, “it wasn’t so long ago” that he was a “different kind of politician.” Not so long ago he spoke of unity and tolerance, was a moderate Islamist, smashed corruption, and advanced free expression. But then, Dukovic writes, “the Prime Minister’s office began to transform Erdogan.” He became intolerant of dissent, cultivated a climate of fear, built patronage networks, attempted to dictate private habits, and developed a personal agenda to perpetuate his political power.
Sad to say the case of Erdogan is typical. Too much power held for too long a time tends to be unhealthy – tends to go bad. It’s why there ought to be a law – ten years in any position of power and you’re out.