Followers Not Following

For at least the last 8 years I have talked and written about leaders and followers and the trajectory of history. Put briefly: leaders in liberal democracies are getting weaker, more feckless; while followers in liberal democracies are getting stronger, more restless.

When I say this to a group, someone in the audience invariably asks, “Where does all this end?” “If followers continue to have more power and leaders less, what does this suggest for good governance?” I reply honestly, which is to admit that I don’t rightly know. I do though add that to look closely and carefully at the world in which we live is to get a few clues. Here just seven – all in the last few days.

  • In Chile were days of violent demonstrations by students protesting an increase in subway fares. In response, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced the raise would be repealed.   
  • Hong Kong, already the site of some 20 weeks of persistent protests, had another round. Despite being banned by the authorities from demonstrating, many thousands of black-clad activists again took to the streets, proving one more time their refusal to retreat.
  • Some estimates were that more than a million people marched yesterday in London, in opposition to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, agitating instead for a second referendum on Britain’s decision to exit the European Union.
  • In Lebanon tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest tax increases and government corruption. Within days cracks began to appear in the governing coalition – one of the coalition parties has already pulled out.  
  • After a group of Catalan separatists received long prison sentences, peaceful marches, a general strike, and violent unrest “convulsed” Catalonia’s capital city, Barcelona, in northeastern Spain.   
  • Demonstrations in Ecuador against President Lenin Moreno’s proposed cuts to fuel subsidies were so violent and wide-ranging that he was forced temporarily to relocate his government outside the capital, Quito. In short order, Moreno, like his Chilean counterpart, Pinera, reversed his decision.
  • In Chicago, the U.S.’s third largest school system, some 32,000 teachers and support staff went on strike, cancelling classes for about 320,000 students. At this writing negotiations are still taking place, though a strike-ending agreement has not yet been reached.     

Leader in the Crossfire

Though he has some competition, he doesn’t have much. Howard Schultz, founder and for decades chairman and chief executive officer of Starbucks, ranks high not just as one of America’s most successful businessmen ever, but as one of its best-intentioned. Above all, though he was not always as good as his word, from the start Schultz put great stock in being an employer who treated his employees carefully and considerately. In being a capitalist with a capacious heart.

In his book, Onward, Schultz returns frequently to this theme. He remembers his father being dismissed from his job after a workplace accident with no health-care coverage and no severance. He further recalls his father never finding “fulfillment or meaning in his work.” It made Schultz vow that if he ever was a “business leader,” he would do things differently. He would “build the kind of company” his father “never got to work for.” He would “create a unique community inside the company.” He would give his workers tasks “infused” with precisely the purpose and meaning of which his father was deprived.

Nor was Schultz content to confine his reformism to the private sector. Early this year he declared he was considering taking on Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, running himself as a centrist, independent candidate. While his foray into politics remained an embryonic effort, it was an indicator of Schultz’s interest in being a well-intentioned leader not only within Starbucks but without.

It is, then, not only an irony, but a sign of the times, that Schultz of all people has got caught in the crossfire of the unrest in Hong Kong – several Starbucks’ storefronts deliberately defaced in recent protests. To say he’s not the only one is to understate it. The recent brouhaha in which the National Basketball Association got ensnared is a vivid example of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s iron grip, which can seem now as if it’s tightening around us all. But Schultz – who has always presented himself as a leader with a conscience – is a special case. A case in which there is an obvious conflict between what presumably are his professional interests, Starbucks making more money than it already is, and his personal conscience, siding with democrats rather than autocrats.

In 2017, before Xi’s control was as complete as it is now, Schultz publicly declared his company would become less dependent on the U. S. market and more on the Chinese market: “China will become a much more important component of the financial results of Starbucks,” he confidently proclaimed. He was right, of course. Toward the end of 2019 are some 170 Starbucks outlets in Hong Kong – and some 4,000 in China. Moreover, by 2022 plans are to have at least 2,000 more. You do the math.

What’s a leader to do? On the one hand, a company to run with humongous numbers of customers in a country that is a tyranny. On the other hand, a conscience to consider that is being tested at every turn of the screw.

Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis (IV)

This is the fourth in a series of four blogs, each of which falls under the heading of “Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis.”

IV.  Leaders – Bourgeoisie and Bosses, Owners and Employers

Adam Neumann, the eventually enormously wealthy founder of WeWork, loved buying houses. Houses as homes that he and his family could live in and relish whenever they pleased. To this end, he borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars, snapping up fabulous properties in Manhattan, Westchester, the Hamptons, and California. When the ax fell – when Neumann was forced to resign as WeWork’s chief executive because of his erratic behavior and drug use – he was eyeing buying more houses, the next in Hawaii.

By every account, in his hay day, Neumann was a charismatic leader whose combination of personality and business savvy made him singularly successful. WeWork expanded at breakneck speed, its performance so spectacular that as recently as January of this year its market value was estimated at $47 billion. But, after it was known that Neumann had personal problems, and after he botched an attempt to take the company public, he was pressured by his directors and investors to step aside as chief executive.

Neumann is not the only CEO recently to have been pushed from his perch. In the last few weeks alone has been a spate of involuntary retirements. These include Devin Weng at eBay; Kevin Burns at Juul; John Flint at HSBC; Denis Muilenburg at Boeing, who was stripped of his role as chairman though not of his responsibilities as CEO; and Herbert Diess of Volkswagen, who is still CEO but who, after being charged with stock market manipulation, is reputed to be hanging on by only a thread.     

Even the most spectacularly successful corporate leaders in recent American history – founders of tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon who managed also to grow them into virtually impregnable business behemoths – appear far more vulnerable now than they did just a few years ago.  Uber’s Travis Kalanick is out and Tesla’s Elon Musk, after admitting to excessive use of pills, is on somewhat thin ice. The point in any case is this: in recent years the tide against big tech companies – all big tech companies – has started to turn. For example, Facebook has been implicated in swinging the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. Google has been fined in multiple countries for its monopolistic practices. And issues such as privacy and kowtowing to Chinese authorities are bedeviling each of these companies effectively constantly. Each is being held to account by politicians and regulators as never before – though the most successful among them continue to remain as powerful as preeminent.

The rate of CEO turnover was higher in 2018 than at any time since the 2008 financial crisis. Additionally, though it’s too early to tell what will happen in 2020, we can say for certain that in 2018 more members of the House of Representatives chose not to run again than at any time in the last quarter century. In other words, leaders in both business and government are both less secure than they were and, to all appearances, less happy than they were. The rewards of leading are less than they were a generation ago, despite what in the corporate sector remain sky high incomes.

The temper of the times is in any case already reflected in one of the key issues of the 2020 presidential campaign, taxing the wealthy. “As the 2020 election approaches, a new crop of Democratic candidates has opened a much larger field of play on this issue, cheered by voters who tell pollsters the economy is stacked against the working class and in favor of the rich. Those candidates are looking beyond the income tax – which many of them would [in any case] increase for the rich – and offering plans to tax wealth, investments and a variety of other hallmarks of the economic top 1 percent.”* For example, Elizabeth Warren is proposing a tax on the 75,000 wealthiest American households, as well as an array of increased investment and payroll taxes specifically aimed at high earners.

The humungous wealth gap between those at the top – including in the United States – and those in the middle and at the bottom rankles to the point of restiveness. Which explains why the tensions that underpin the Communist Manifesto continue to linger, deep into the 21st century. No question that employees are becoming more restive. No question that employers are becoming more vulnerable. This is not, of course, to suggest that the system, here American capitalism, is under threat. It is, however, to suggest that the class struggle, the contest between competing groups, that Marx and Engels so brilliantly depicted a century and a half ago, remains relevant today as it did then. Arguably not as relevant but, nevertheless, relevant.

The leadership industry does not conceive of leaders as bourgeoisie or bosses, or as owners or employers. Nor for that matter are followers thought of as proletariats, workers, or employees. Further, leaders particularly are defined hundreds of different ways, some of which include people without any of the usual resources, such as power, authority, and money. I though am arguing here as I always do – for using plain English. In plain English leaders usually are thought of as people who have control, such as owner and employers. And, in plain English followers usually are thought of as people who have little or no control, such as workers and employees. It is in keeping with these commonsensical conceptions that seeing leaders and followers as engaged in a permanent struggle, even a class struggle, seems reasonable and defensible – as opposed to unreasonable and indefensible.


*”Finding Solutions,” New York Times, September 19, 2019.

Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis (III)

This is the third in a series of four blogs – all to be posted during this week – each of which falls under the heading of “Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis.”

III.  Followers – Proletariats, Workers, Employees

About a month ago some 50,000 General Motors workers went on strike for the first time in twelve years. The effects of the strike are becoming punishing, particularly in the Midwest where the stoppage is having a significant impact. This raises the question, why walk out now?

It is conventional wisdom that American unions have become weak. Since the 1960s they suffered repeated blows to the head, including globalization and changing technologies such as automation and digitalization. Each of these hits threatened their members’ livelihoods becoming, therefore, ironically, existential threats to precisely those organizations formed to protect them.

Moreover, recently, the specifics of union workers’ complaints have been exacerbated by the same free-floating angers and anxieties that plague Americans more generally. I refer, for example, to deadening wage stagnation even as corporate profits have soared, and to the drumbeat of income inequity, a relentless reminder that the inordinately rich are getting still richer while even the middle-class struggles now to pay for increasingly expensive staples such as housing and education.  

This combination – the emasculation of the American labor movement along with the more general American malaise – explains why now the auto workers’ strike. It explains why early in this decade the “Fight for $15” movement was born, leading within a few years to huge rallies and fast-food walkouts across the country. It explains why last year 8,000 Marriott workers went similarly on strike. It explains why earlier this year 31,000 supermarket workers also went out on strike. It explains why in the last year even tens of thousands of teachers went on strike. It explains why some 80,000 Kaiser Permanente worker are threatening right about now to go on strike. It explains why last year nearly a half a million workers took part in strikes and work stoppages – the most in over a decade. It explains why a recent Gallup poll found that public approval for unions has climbed to 64 percent, up from 48 percent a decade ago, and near its highest level in a half century. And, it also explains why non-unionized workers have started to join hands! To cite one example from a recent New York Times article titled “Uniting Workers, Without a Union,” last fall some 20,000 Google workers left their desks to protest the company’s handling of complaints related to sexual harassment.

Still, I want to be careful. I do not want to exaggerate the significance of what’s happening. The United Auto Workers union has shrunk from its all-time high of 1.5 million members to less than half a million. And only about ten and a half percent of the nation’s workforce is currently unionized, at or near an all-time low. Moreover, the auto strike continues as I write, so how it comes out in the end remains uncertain.

Nevertheless, attention should be paid. This is a struggle between those who have much, much more and those who have much, much, less. Of course, the divide between them is not as enormous as it was in the middle of the 19th century. To an extent American capitalism has compensated for deficiencies resulting from inequities. In fact, it was precisely in consequence of the hay day of the union movement that the gaping gap between capitalists and proletariats was modified.

But to tamp down a struggle between two groups is not to snuff it out. The class conflict to which the Communist Manifesto famously referred lives on. Moreover, unless employees get some satisfaction from their employers, it is likely, in the third decade of the 21st century, to be exacerbated. What does this have to do with leadership and followership? Everything.

Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis (II)

This is the second in s series of four blogs – all to be posted before the end of this week – each of which falls under the heading of “Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis.”

II. Capitalism – The American Experience

In my previous blog I wrote that at least since the Communist Manifesto, the battle lines had been drawn. Those that had money – capitalists, bourgeoisie, employers – had power. Those without money – workers, proletariats, the unemployed – had no power. They were powerless. Then I added, “In other words, those with money and power were leaders. Those without money and power were followers.”

Given the words “leaders” and “followers” have countless different definitions, and given they are nearly never associated with the words “communism” and “capitalism,” it’s important to define how “leader” and “follower” are here being used. In my book, Followership, I define followers by rank: Followers are subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line.” The present discussion is in keeping with this definition.

More precisely, I am equating leaders with 1) capitalists; 2) bourgeoisie; and 3) employers. And I am equating followers with 1) workers; 2) proletariats; and 3) the unemployed. The equations are reasonable for as the definition of follower makes clear, power, authority, influence and, by implication, money, are usually associated with leaders; while the lack of power, authority, influence and, by implication, money, are usually associated with followers. Put directly, in general, leaders have more of whatever is valued than do followers.

If, then, as Marx and Engels argued, history is a series of struggles – class struggles between competing groups such as freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, bourgeoisie and proletariat – then categorizing leaders and followers similarly is not far-fetched. In fact, it makes sense. For history can easily and reasonably be viewed as a class struggle in which leaders (superiors) and followers (subordinates) often have been, and will continue often to be, at odds.

Of course, I recognize that some leaders have no obvious resources. For example, leaders who emerge from the bottom up typically do so without – at least initially without – power, authority, influence or money. Still, in general, and certainly in common parlance, leaders have more of everything than do their followers, which is the assumption I make here. Similarly, I recognize that much of the leadership literature has leaders and followers happily in tandem, good leaders keeping at the forefront not their own needs, wants and wishes, but those of their followers. However, in the real world – the world in which we really do live as opposed to the one in which we might like to live – leaders and followers are not always so aligned. In fact, often their needs, wants, and wishes are unaligned or maybe misaligned.  

Given the inevitable tensions in capitalist systems – tensions to which Marx and Engels referred – it comes as no surprise that as capitalism has evolved, notably in Europe but also in the United States, the system has adapted. That is, capitalists, leaders, have had no choice but to modify the system to take account of the well-being of workers, followers. Social Security, regular payments from the American government to the American people, is a cardinal example of how capitalism was modified over the years, in this case in 1935, to protect the old and otherwise needy against dire hardship, In other words, on the heels of the Great Depression, political leaders, under the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt, bestowed on their followers monthly government grants.

However, whatever the adaptations that capitalism has made over the years to accommodate those who are not capitalists, there are moments in time when they increasingly seem to fall short. When the system seems so inequitable – so strongly favoring the haves (leaders) over the have-nots (followers) – that it becomes to some intolerable. It could be that such a time is now.

The list of concerns and complaints is familiar. They include, among others, rising inequality; slow growth; wage stagnation; political polarization; declining trust in nearly every American institution; rising anxieties about apparently intractable problems from homelessness to climate change; and government dysfunction. The point is that while the problems to which I refer are alien to the leadership industry, they are not so to leadership. One could even argue that though the tensions associated with capitalism first surfaced in 19th century Europe, their manifestations are integral to leadership, especially to political and corporate leadership, in 21st century America.    

Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis (I)

This is the first in a series of four blogs – all to be posted in the next week – each of which falls under the heading of “Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis.”

I. Communism

It could reasonably be argued that no prose piece ever has had the persuasive power of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s small, slender volume, the Communist Manifesto. It took time for the Manifesto to have a major political impact. Originally it was published in 1848, but the Russian Revolution was not until the first half of the twentieth century, and Communism in full throttle was not until the second half of the twentieth century. (For several decades, beginning in the 1950s, Communists were in control of one-third of the world’s people – in Europe and Asia, in South and Central America, and in Africa.)  

But it took no time at all for the Manifesto to have a major ideological impact. In consequence of social, political, and intellectual ferment – the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the French revolution, and the European revolutions of 1848 – was fertile ground for the radicalisms propagated throughout the nineteenth century by, most famously, Karl Marx. Above all were the fervent, fevered, and tireless argumentations about what rightly belonged to the haves and what to the have-nots.

Nor is the Manifesto simply an historical artifact. To this day the tensions between the haves and have-nots are everywhere in evidence. In fact, even in the United States, which since its inception had remained an exception – neither communism nor even socialism ever took root – some of the ideas that underpin both communism and socialism have become part of the national discourse. Bernie Sanders, one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president, freely describes himself as a socialist and has done so for years. His success at the national level – not only this year but in the previous presidential campaign – is of itself remarkable. As well it is testimony to the enduring influence of, yes, The Communist Manifesto.

Essentially the Manifesto sees human history as a contest between competing groups that include among others, “freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, and lord and serf.” More generally, the “oppressor and the oppressed” have “stood in constant opposition to one another.” This opposition was ultimately not reconcilable and so, invariably, it ended according to Marx and Engels, “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

The contest that Marx and Engels focused on in their treatise was one to which they bore witness: between the bourgeoisie (owners, employers) on the one side and the proletariat (renters, workers) on the other. To be sure, in Europe in the 1840s the word “proletariat” was associated not so much with the “working class” as it was with those who had no employment at all or only casual employment – and who were, therefore, as miserable as impoverished.

But make no mistake about it. In the Communist Manifesto the battle lines were forevermore drawn, between those with money (capital) and power and those without. There was, moreover, a connection between them, a direct connection. Those that had money had power. Those without money had no power. They were powerless. In other words, those with money and power were leaders. Those without money and power were followers.  

Bad Leadership – A List of Particulars

House Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have decided to focus their attempt to impeach President Donald J. Trump on just one of his many transgressions: pressuring the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s once most obvious political rival, Joe Biden.

However, as a political strategy, intended presumably to secure not only impeachment in the House but conviction in the Senate, it is weak. Its virtue supposedly is simplicity. Everyone can understand “quid pro quo,” which happens in this case to be illegal. The question though is this: Will a single count against President Trump suffice to remove him from office?

I am not alone in my concern. Veteran political reporter Elizabeth Drew, for one, worries the Democrats are “making their target too narrow and moving too fast.” My purpose here though is not to address, directly, the argument. Rather it is simply to list other of the president’s transgressions. Some were illegal, some immoral, some un-American, some racist, some misogynistic… I could go on. The point is that most were in violation if not of the law, then of social and political norms. Of conventional standards of what has been considered reasonably good, socially acceptable behavior by anyone anywhere in America.         

The American political system has turned out ill-equipped to deal with an executive who loudly, proudly, and incessantly defies past patterns of presidential performance. The more important, then, to base the impeachment argument not on the slender reed of a single misdeed, but on the firm foundation of the president’s record during his entire time in office.

What follows is a list of ten of Trump’s transgressions – each an outrage, each a violation of the American political tradition.

  1. Inveterate lying.  
  2. Relentless enriching.
  3. Executive overreaching.
  4. Obstruction of justice.
  5. Abuse of power.
  6. Colluding with America’s enemies.
  7. Alienating America’s allies.
  8. Debasing, demeaning, diminishing, demoralizing the other.
  9. Trivializing tragedies.
  10.  Exacerbating animosities.

Given so many fish to fry, why are the Dems frying just one? Fact is this president will long be remembered not for doing one thing wrong but for doing nothing right.  

Leaders and Light Bulbs

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I ran an organization. Well, I’ve run several organizations, but in this instance, after a few years of leading and managing, I was ready to move on to something else. And I did, in good conscience. For I was leaving behind a going concern that was humming along, as within the timeframe of just a few years my colleagues and I had established an enterprise that by every measure was successful.

Though I was a leadership scholar as well as a leadership practitioner, I left said slot under the illusion, the delusion, that what we had put in place would remain in place. That all the good work we had done would not, could not, in short order be undone. Well, dear reader, I was wrong. Very wrong. In not much more than a year, much of what we had initiated and then carefully crafted bit the dust, hit the cutting room floor, never again to see the light of day.  A leadership lesson learned – the hard way. Whatever you build up, your successor can quite quickly, rather easily, tear down.

It’s a lesson that comes to mind regularly, as it’s not uncommon for a leader to erase the work, that is, some of the work, of his or her immediate predecessor. However, during the presidency of Donald Trump it’s a lesson of which I’m reminded virtually weekly. Virtually weekly Trump obliterates one or another of Barack Obama’s policy achievements. If it were up to Trump, Obama, not to speak of his record, would be, apparently, wiped from the history books, so eager does the former seem to erase any vestige of the latter.  

U.S. as participant in the Paris climate agreement? No longer. U.S. as participant in the Iran nuclear agreement? No longer. U.S. as participant in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement? No longer. U.S. as proponent of … making light bulbs more efficient? No longer.

What? It was President George W. Bush who first signed (in 2007) a law mandating that light bulbs use less energy. To be sure, it was Obama who pushed this environmentally friendly initiative even further, who expanded the legislative ban that Bush pushed through to include more types of lights. No matter: Trump knocked down not just what one of his predecessors had built up, but two.

Trump said he mandated the policy change because “I always look orange and so do you. The light is the worst.” Was he trying to be funny? No matter. The point is instead of being a builder, Trump’s a demolisher. Of course there’s the more general point as well. Leader beware! He or she who succeeds you could wreck what you wrought!  

Leaders Look in the Mirror

Last week the Business Roundtable announced it was changing direction.  The Roundtable is among the nation’s largest and most important professional associations, counting among its members chief executives of dozens of the largest U. S. companies. So, when it issues a new ‘statement of purpose,” attention should be paid.  

The change of direction amounted to an apparent abdication of the principle of “shareholder primacy.” Instead of being driven primarily or even exclusively by profits, members of the Roundtable agreed from here on in to consider “all stakeholders,” including workers, customers, and society at large.  

No sooner was the new statement of purpose issued than it was rendered suspect. Larry Summers, for example, former U.S. Treasury Secretary, suggested it likely was empty rhetoric. “I’m wary,” he said. But while rejiggering the Roundtable’s presentation of putative purpose guarantees nothing, it does suggest that leaders in business are being buffeted, if only slightly, by the prevailing winds.

Why after so many years of putting profits first did most members of the Business Roundtable sign on to a statement that signaled significant change? Here’s my systemic sketch – a sketch that looks at 1) leaders; 2) followers, and 3) the contexts within which leaders and followers are situated.     


Several corporate leaders led the charge, argued for change. Top of this list is Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, among the largest money management firms in the world. For years Fink has publicly pushed for, proselytized for, change away from shareholder primacy toward corporate responsibility. Other like-minded leaders include, Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz; Salesforce’s co- CEO, Marc Benioff; and, more recently, JP Morgan Chase’s CEO, Jamie Dimon.   

Political leaders have also played a part, none more so than two of the three leading Democratic candidates for president, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Both are progressive who for years have taken aim at big business which, by and large, they judge rapacious. Warren has maintained that until “big corporations start following through on their words by paying workers more instead of spending billions on buybacks,” she would remain a harsh critic. Sanders has claimed that business leaders were “feeling the pressure from working families all over the country.”


Public approval of corporate leaders is at or near an all-time low. Americans are disposed to see corporate leaders as obscenely greedy and outrageously self-interested. From where they stand, why not? CEO’s sky-high earnings are in striking contrast to those of their workers. A single indicator: the highest paid chief executives make 254 times the median salary of those in their employ. Some people have protested. For example, employees at MacDonald’s, Amazon, and Google have taken publicly to objecting to what they deem destructive discrepancies, among them income inequities. Moreover, while most of the time the American people are bystanders, some of the time they are not. Come November 2020 will be an election in which an electorate that is fed-up just might vote into office a president, a Senate, and a House of Representatives (not to speak of officials at the state and local levels) that tilts to the left. Should this happen, members of the Business Roundtable have no interest in being caught fully flat-footed.


The United States is not exempt from the populism and nativism that have come to characterize liberal democracies the world over.  In other words, the U. S. is itself situated in a larger, global context within which popular discontents remain on the rise. Why do some of the world’s largest corporations pay no taxes?  Why do some people have so much more while other people have so much less? Why is the environment being dangerously degraded while leaders seem unable effectively to respond? Why is North Korea continuing to develop weapons that threaten not just its closest neighbors but places and people at great remove? Why is corruption more rampant? Why have what historically were the world’s greatest democracies – the United States and the United Kingdom – declined? Why have they been so stuck – the United States unable to shed by far the worst president in its history; the United Kingdom unable to extract itself from a miserably misguided commitment, Brexit.

Want to know why members of the Business Roundtable thought it was high time,  past time, to change their appearance if not necessarily their substance, start here.