Are Americans really, really ready to elect a woman president? Given what’s happened in recent weeks, I’m really, really not sure.
We’ve had fifty different explanations for why in one month’s time Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers have gone way down, while Donald Trump’s have gone way up. One or two months ago Clinton was comfortably ahead in most of the most important battleground states. Now Trump leads her in states like Ohio, and is tied with her in states such as Colorado and Pennsylvania. One or two months ago Clinton seemed the near certain winner of this endless, relentless race to the White House. Now, at most, she’s slightly ahead. Are any of the explanations provided so far adequate to the task of explaining his rapid rise and her precipitous decline? What really, really gives???
All along the assumption has been that in 2016 being a woman would not disadvantage Hillary Clinton. After all, she had run for the presidency eight years earlier, and had come close to winning the Democratic nomination. And, after all, Americans had elected a black man to the White House. And after all, we’re well into the second decade of the 21st century – surely we’re past gender bias.
In truth though, the evidence for this is scant. To the contrary. The evidence is that women at the top are still few in number – only 4 % of Fortune 500 CEOs are female which, at last count, means that 96% are male. And the evidence is that Americans still equate leadership qualities more with being masculine than feminine.
In 2007 Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, both experts on women and leadership, wrote, “The unique pressures placed on female leaders derive in part from the relation between stereotypes about leaders and stereotypes about women and men…. People consider men to be agentic, possessing traits such as ambition, confidence, self-sufficiency, dominance, and assertiveness, whereas they consider woman to be communal, possessing traits such as kindness, helpfulness, concern for others, warmth, and gentleness. And how are leaders perceived? … Leaders are thought to have more agentic than communal qualities. As a result, stereotypes about leaders match quite well with stereotypes about men.”*
Ring a bell? Sure, it’s 2016, not 2007. It’s a decade later, we must’ve evolved since then! Really? Have we changed much, if at all? Or do we still think of leaders as more properly male than female? Or do we forgive things in Donald Trump that we would never in a million years forgive in a female candidate? Or do we hold Hillary Clinton accountable in ways that far transcend any standard we have for her male counterpart?
Just asking. On the morning of this first presidential debate – where she will have to be letter perfect or be perceived as having failed, and he will be forgiven anything short of a national disaster – I’m just asking.
*“Overcoming Resistance to Women Leaders” in Barbara Kellerman and Deborah Rhode, eds., Women and Leadership: State of Play and Strategies for Change (Jossey-Bass, 2007), pp. 127, 128.
You think you had a rough week? In comparison with whom?
- Andrew Cuomo. Once touted as a likely Democratic candidate for president, the governor of New York has fallen on hard times. This past week more of the same. Faced with what the Wall Street Journal described as “scathing allegations” about his administration in a federal criminal complaint, Cuomo blithely insisted that he was conducting business as usual. Really? This while no fewer than nine people with close ties to the governor were charged by federal prosecutors with bribery and extortion. If this were the first time Cuomo smelled of scandal, it would be one thing. But it is not.
- John Kerry. It’s not often that an inordinately well-intentioned public official fails so repeatedly and resonantly. But Kerry has done it again. Once again he has tried as hard as he knew how to bring about a semblance of peace or, at least, a cessation of hostilities, only to fail miserably. This time of course in Syria. This time his humiliating failure was punctuated by the worst bombing of Aleppo – already the most wretched of all cities – since the start of the five-year-old civil war. John McCain described Kerry’s efforts to pursue a deal with Russia as “intrepid but delusional.” The latter has only four short months left to prove the former wrong.
- Paul Ryan. He’s turned craven. The Great White Hope of the Republican Party, the man who dared for an instant to withhold his support from the Republican nominee for president, has turned mute. Hedging his bets as Donald Trump has morphed from likely loser to within striking distance of the White House, Ryan has clammed up. It’s especially disappointing because we have every reason to believe we know how Ryan really feels. Because once upon a time not long ago Ryan chastised Trump for making a racist comment. Because once upon a time not long ago Ryan questioned Trump’s commitment to Republican ideals. Because once upon a time not long ago Ryan knocked the nominee on a regular basis. Because once upon a time not long Ryan was man enough – you should pardon the expression – to put his money where his mouth was. Now the reverse is true. Now Ryan puts his mouth where his money is.
No wonder we’re disheartened. Seems the good guy of the three was tilting at windmills.
James B. Stewart’s column in today’s New York Times about the Wells Fargo case is so solid, there’s no need for me to reiterate his argument. (Link below.) I will however extract from his piece eight salient points, all of which pertain to bad leadership.
- Wrongdoing at the highest levels of Wells Fargo seems so clear, it has the virtue of providing the Justice Department with an unusual opportunity to put its money where its mouth is. To hold one or more corporate leaders accountable for their misconduct.
- Accountability for misconduct – in this case defrauding customers on a depressingly large scale – will be semi-achieved only if individuals are held responsible. It will never be achieved if only institutions are held responsible.
- To dismiss 5,000 people at lower levels of the organizational hierarchy for wrongdoing endemic to the corporate culture, is more reprehensible than doing nothing at all. It’s scapegoating – the powerful deflecting blame onto the powerless.
- Fraud is frequently difficult to ferret out. Not in this case it isn’t. One of the virtues of this case is that the charges of criminal wrongdoing are easy to understand.
- Corporate misconduct is easier to prosecute when political and public outrage are visible, palpable, formidable.
- Corporate misconduct is easier to prosecute when a single individual takes the lead. In this case a highly visible senator, Elizabeth Warren, an expert in financial services and also consumer protection, is the perfect attack dog. Her assault on Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf during Tuesday’s congressional hearing was lacerating, devastating.
- Warren’s attack on Stumpf had virtue of containing specific recommendations. She demanded he be criminally investigated, by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission, And she called for his resignation. (In the wake of Tuesday’s hearing, Stumpf did in fact resign, albeit only from his role as adviser to the Federal Reserve.)
- As usual, to follow the money is to have our anger stoked even further. Between 2011 and 2015 – right while the “epidemic of bogus account openings was in full swing” – Stumpf earned over $100 million.
Those of us who are card-carrying members of the Leadership Industry would do well to study what happened at Wells Fargo. Not only is it edifying, it is sobering. A sobering reminder of how little we know about bad leadership, and of how ill-equipped we are to stop or even slow it. If Stumpf and the now “retired” former head of retail banking at Wells Fargo, Carrie Tolstedt, end up paying a price for what took place on their watch, we’ll have cold consolation – which is, however, better than no consolation.
If anyone out there resembles me – has as much of an interest in bad leadership and followership as in good leadership and followership – check out these two corporate cases. First the emissions scandal at Volkswagen – a story that broke a year ago. Second the sales scandal at Wells Fargo – a story that broke in recent weeks. Both will go down in the annals of the history of business as leadership and followership gone miserably wrong. Here five key questions that pertain to both companies:
- Where on the organizational hierarchy does responsibility lie?
- Who should still be punished – Wells Fargo has already fired more than 5,000 employees; but no one at or near the top has paid any sort of price for tolerating or even encouraging fraudulent practices – and for what exactly?
- How did the wrongdoing start – and morph over time into a toxin that poisoned the entire corporate culture?
- What does this tell us about the gaping hole between ethics in theory and ethics in practice?
- What can be learned from these cases – and what can be taught based on these cases?
Wells Fargo CEO, John Stumpf will be testifying this week before a fired up Senate Banking Committee. Good. Moreover, the bank has already agreed to pay a fine, and enter into an enforcement agreement with regulators. Also good. Volkswagen will pay much more dearly. Costs to the company for cheating on emissions tests are already calculated at over $20 billion. Even better.
Still, this sort of public purification will teach us nothing. For us in any enduring way to extract benefits from the costs will require two things. First, some leaders, some individual high flyers, will have to pay a visible, palpable, price. Second, we must get to the dark, dirty bottom of what happened as if our lives depended on it. Which, of course, they do.
Very few living American leaders have been able to retain their dignity. Very few living American leaders have been able to stay widely respected and deeply admired. Very few living American leaders have been able to remain clean while swimming in dirty waters.
An exception has been former Secretary of State, and Four Star General Colin Powell. An exception until now. Now that his e mails have been hacked, his veneer has been stripped bare. Not that he’s been knocked off his pedestal altogether. But he’s askew, his perfect persona rendered imperfect, less elegant, judicious, and moderate than he had led us to believe.
Apart from describing Donald Trump as a “national disgrace,” and apart from describing Hillary Clinton as “greedy” and filled with “unbridled ambition,” there’s something about Powell’s calling two of his former colleagues (Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney) “idiots” that’s unseemly. Not wrong, mind you, but unseemly – unbefitting a man like Powell who has regularly been seen as being above the fray, the fray presumably beneath him.
So we reap what we sow. Another American leader bites the dust. Another instance of changes in culture and technology twinning to tarnish a man who spent a lifetime polishing his exterior.