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Leadership 101

Posted by on Dec 18, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

You’re Barack Obama. You see yourself a leader who sometimes gets things done the way you wanted and intended.

On December 17th, 2014 you announce that you have concluded a deal which after more than a half century will restore between the United States and Cuba formal diplomatic relations. You’re reminded of your power, authority, and influence.

You’re Barack Obama. You see yourself a leader who sometimes gets things done the way you wanted and intended.

The very same day, December 17th, 2014, you are forced publicly to admit that a major American company was attacked by cyber-terrorists. You are forced further to admit (if only indirectly) that it was an attack for which your administration was inadequately prepared.  In fact your administration was so ill-prepared that for the moment you decide to do nothing. You decide that you need time to determine America’s response to North Korea’s aggression.

You’re Barack Obama. You see yourself a leader who sometimes gets things done the way you wanted and intended.

During your six years in the White House you have learned one Big Thing – the limits of leadership. You have learned how small your reserves of power, authority, and influence.  You have learned how even leaders as powerful as you are relentlessly beset by events beyond their control. You have learned how much of your time is spent being reactive as opposed to proactive. You have learned that even the likes of you are just one part of a system – the leadership system - in which parts other than you impinge on your ability to do what you want to do when you want to do it. You have learned that leadership is about much, much more than any single individual – no matter how singular.


Note: This is my last post for 2014. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!    

You Want a Woman Leader? You Got a Woman Leader!

Posted by on Dec 11, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

  • Dianne Feinstein’s been serving as Senator from the state of California since 1992.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s racked up more popular votes (in 2012) than any Senator in American history.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s 81 years old.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s the oldest currently sitting Senator.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s served as Chair of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence since 2009.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s primarily responsible for the just released Committee Report on CIA Detention and Interrogation.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s primarily responsible for releasing the Report at this particular time.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s insisting that in spite of the anger engendered by the Report, “America is big enough to admit when it’s wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes.”
  • Dianne Feinstein’s got a tart, tough response for anyone who criticizes the Report – their numbers are many – which boils down to “Read the Report.”
  • Dianne Feinstein’s clearly at a point in her life where she’s indifferent to her political enemies.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s clearly at a point in her life where she’s hell bent on leaving a legacy.
  • Dianne Feinstein’s clearly at a point in her life where she’s reached the pinnacle of her power. On an issue of the utmost importance – America’s use of torture or, if you prefer, enhanced interrogation techniques – she’s taken the lead. For years to come the Report drawn up at her instigation and insistence will be critical to the conversation. .

“You’ve got to get mad!”

Posted by on Dec 5, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

One of the most memorable scenes in American cinema is in Paddy Chayefsky’s film, “Network.” Directed by Sidney Lumet, it features a sequence in which the news anchor, played by the late, great Peter Finch, unravels for all the world to see, live on network television.

Finch is consumed by anger at anything and everything – and he shouts his by now uncontrollable rage into the mike in front of him, with network executives looking on in disbelief. Finch’s fury – though maybe crazy – turns out to be contagious. It spreads to others, to ordinary citizens, who then do exactly as he tells them to do.

“You’ve got to get mad,” he screams. You’ve got to declare, “I’m a human being, God damn it! My life has value!”  And then he says to his viewing audience all across America, “I want you to get up now. I want you to go to the window and open it, and to stick your head out and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

The exoneration of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was the match that lit the fire. The exoneration of Officer Daniel Panteleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City was the fuel that spread the fire.

Many millions of Americans are by now mad as hell. Many thousands of Americans have by now followed Finch’s lead. They went to the window and opened it. Then they stuck their heads out and shouted loud and clear that they are mad as hell – and that they’re not going to take this anymore. Put directly, their, our, anger has congealed to the point where it will not go away until there is hard evidence of real change.


Hard Times – In Europe

Posted by on Nov 29, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

One of history’s boldest political experiments ever has been the unification of Europe, first in the West, then extending to the East. After eons during which the continent was scarred by bloody battles, in the wake of World War II was a slow but certain effort to connect the countries in peace not war.

In some ways the experiment has been remarkably successful. Certainly the countries of Western Europe, in part through the development of institutions such as the European Union, are tied so as to make war between them – between, say, Italy and England – near inconceivable. But in many other ways European reunification remains a struggle – economically, politcically, socially, and even in selected cases militarily.

A few observations:

  • Not only are most of Europe’s economies continuing still to struggle after the financial crisis, their struggles divide rather than unite them. The stark divide between the economies of Europe’s southern tier and the economies of its northern one highlight the enormous and arguably irreconcilable economic differences between, for example, Greece and the Netherlands.
  • One of the consequences of what most countries are experiencing as hard times – including unacceptably high rates of unemployment, especially among young people – is a political shift to the hard right. Notable electoral gains have been made by right wing parties in countries including France, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Greece, and Switzerland. Not only are these right wing movements characterized by values that could be considered anti-democratic, they are also deeply nationalist. They go against the grain, against the heart and soul, of the European experiment.
  • The fact that Europe has tolerated Russia’s intervention in and invasion of Ukraine has exposed a grave if not fatal weakness: Europe’s inability or, if you prefer, unwillingness to stop aggression even when it violates a border between two sovereign states. So far at least, Vladimir Putin’s willingness to escalate in Ukraine has manifestly outstripped Europe’s capacity to stop him.
  • Increasingly questions are being raised about whether the values of countries in East Europe can finally and fully be aligned with those of countries in West Europe.  Of course not all East European countries are the same. Poland is not Bulgaria. Still, there are unsettling signs that authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe during the decades of the Cold War may have had lingering effects. For example, in countries including Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, a free and independent press is giving way to a press controlled by a small number of people with money, power, and political influence.
  • Finally there is this. There is Pope Francis, who this past week addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg. Though he began his speech with a few niceties, it was in the end no less than a tongue-lashing. He decried the ebbing of Europe’s “humanistic spirit.” He lambasted Europe’s obsession with “trade and commerce.” He attacked the “fuctionalistic and privatized mindset” of many of Europe’s decision makers. And he accused the continent generally of being “elderly and haggard,” of feeling enfeebled in a world that increasingly regards it with “mistrust” and even “suspicion.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U. S. gradually shifted its gaze from away from Europe and toward Asia. Certainly in the last five years or so, America’s fixation has been on China, not on Russia, Germany, England, France, or even on Europe as a whole. I would argue that we went so far as to take Europe for granted. I would similarly argue that when the Pope likened the European continent to an aging “grandmother,” he was making what he intended a wake-up call.

Leadership Limps

Posted by on Nov 28, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

For a couple of years I’ve written about the “end of leadership,” about how leaders are in decline and leadership learning increasingly is in question.

There is no evidence that this trend has been reversed. To the contrary, it has been confirmed, not disconfirmed.

Three recent signifiers:

First, Americans are more dubious than ever about the efficiency and integrity of those leading their most important institutions. President Obama remains at or near the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, while Congress is held in still lower repute, its approval ratings in the single digits. Similarly, various government agencies including the IRS, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have been either mired in scandal or exposed as falling down on the job. Moreover the midterm elections came and went with two thirds of the American people not bothering even to go to the polls.

Nor is the government alone in its affliction. As Peter Baker pointed out in the New York Times, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life continues to fall, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, the media, the medical and criminal justice systems, and small business. This continuing deterioration could, of course, be as much about those being led as about those doing the leading. Either way, between the two there is a major disconnect.

Second, though business schools continue to maintain that they are ideal places in which to learn leadership, the students that they profess to teach are not so quick to buy what’s being sold. The evidence suggests that they understand full well that no single MBA course or for that matter group of courses can turn sows’ ears into silk purses. The best that business schools can do is to serve as incubators in which future leaders can grow, slowly. Moreover it behooves these schools to send at least two messages: that leaders now are more vulnerable than they used to be, much more vulnerable; and that leadership has gone from being a solo act to being a collaborative one. In other words, the line between being a leader and being a follower increasingly is fungible.

Finally there is this sobering note. For ten years the Financial Times backed by McKinsey has given out an award for the best business book of the year. First the FT develops a “long list,” which then gets whittled down to a short list, and finally to a single winner.* In a piece by Andrew Hill on the selection process, he found that, contrary to his original expectation, good books on leadership and management are few and far between. “However hard executives may search for formulas to help them run their companies better,” Hill wrote, “truly original and readable books on leadership and management are rare. Of the hundreds submitted over 10 years, fewer than 30 books that fall into that category have made the long list, eight have reached the final and none has so far won.”

What Hill is saying, in short, is that the field of leadership and management is intellectually impoverished. It is poor soil in which to grow good leaders.


*In 2012, The End of Leadership made the long list.