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Hard Times: Leadership in America – Institutions

Posted by on Mar 26, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

My most recent book – Hard Times: Leadership in America – was published in October by Stanford University Press. The book explores the impact of context on leadership and followership. 

Beginning February 3, I started posting in this space excerpts. They appear here in the order in which they appear in the book.

Excerpt from Chapter 6 – Institutions

“Differences among and between generations confirm, not disconfirm, that what I am describing is a phenomenon much more likely to be enduring than evanescent. That fact is that young people are even less disposed than their elders to trust people in positions of authority – leaders of institutions…. It is of course possible that people change over time – become more trusting as they age. It’s equally possible, even probable, that succeeding generations will have even less confidence in American institutions than do their immediate predecessors.

American institutions are not now what once they were. Or, at least, they seem to us in the present not to be what they were in the past. Perhaps we romanticize what’s long gone and demonize what’s here and now. However, from the perspective of a leader trying to get others to follow, to go along, it does not much matter. The bottom line is that even the best and brightest of the leadership class are now saddled with a reputational problem. Both they and the institutions for which they are responsible carry an albatross – skepticism, even suspicion – that cumulates to a considerable, cumbersome burden.”

The Tyranny of Technology

Posted by on Mar 24, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

For years I have written about how technology has changed the lives of leaders – complicated their lives, made it harder for them to lead and manage, emboldened their followers to attack, often anonymously, in ways they never would have done previously.  Still, the enormous impact of technology on the dynamic between leaders and followers remains insufficiently studied, poorly understood, and widely unappreciated.

Most of the evidence we have on this is anecdotal – stories that testify to the tyranny of technology but that do not facilitate a framework for looking at power in particular.  Still, every now and then leaders come along who memorably detail the impact of the changing technologies on their capacity to control the action.

So it is with Morton Schapiro, who previously was president of Williams College, and who for the last six years has been president of Northwestern University. In a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled “The New Face of Campus Unrest” (3/19), Schapiro wrote eloquently about how the explosion of social media has disrupted campus life “to a level unforeseen in the digital dark ages” little more than a decade ago. Schapiro points out how “dealing with campus community members on Facebook, Twitter, You-Tube, Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Vine and Yik Yak has become a high-stakes challenge.” He describes how during a class, previous authority figures, namely professors, were attacked on Yik Yak, a smartphone app that allows people within a limited geographical range to share anonymous messages. He describes students using social media to post racially offensive comments. And he describes the high level of divisiveness among university officials on the question of how exactly to respond to these sorts of on line offenses, even at the highest levels.

Above all Schapiro describes a leader, himself, caught too often between the proverbial rock and a hard place. “Any attempt to hold people accountable for what they say will rile up the ‘free speech at any cost’ advocates,” he writes, “but any defense of First Amendment rights will lead to campus unrest and hand-ringing. So where to draw the line?” Later he asks … “So what’s a president to do?”

No easy answers here but in the end Schapiro turns, as I now invariably do, to context. “The context of an incident matters,” he concludes, “and it is near impossible for outsiders to glean the facts during the public battles that ensue after a high-profile event. College community members deserve to be in a safe and supportive environment, and it is our job to nurture that environment.”


The Rise and Fall and Rise of General David Petraeus

Posted by on Mar 20, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Of the good number of American men who were leaders, whose reputations were tarnished in recent years by scandal, no one was more foolish, or more egregious, than General David Petraeus.

The list of highly placed men who have been hoisted, so to speak, by their own petard is long. Moreover many of these men were perfectly idiotic in the level of risk that they took by engaging in practices that, if disclosed, were bound deeply to humiliate them. But Petraeus was singular, first because his vaulted position as the most esteemed and admired military man of his time seemed etched in stone; second because as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency he held a post defined by trust; and third because his fall from grace was occasioned not only by his betrayal on a personal level, but by his betrayal on a professional one.

Our proclivity has been to position Petraeus alongside other leaders whose lust and, or, love, did them in, at least temporarily, men such as Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and Mark Sanford.  But what Petraeus did was materially different. He was guilty, by his own admission, not merely of adultery, which presumably is his business, but of providing his lover (and biographer) with notebooks that contained classified information. This, presumably, is our business. The nation’s business.

What he did, in other words, was an outrage. His was an outrageous abdication of responsibility as one of America’s most highly placed leaders. Nevertheless, the government has chosen to give him no more than a slap on the wrist. What’s even scarier, or, at least more offensive, is that we, the American people, seem ready to give him a pass as well. The White House recently admitted it is consulting with Petraeus on the situation in the Middle East, and the Washington Post just quoted him as guru on how dangerous is Iran. It’s clear that now that the legal case against him is in effect settled, Petraeus is staging a comeback.

I’m modestly into forgiveness. And I’ve written extensively on America’s apology culture, especially as it applies to leaders. But some things leaders do are not forgivable. Providing your lover with access to some of the nation’s secrets is one of them. It’s obvious Petraeus does not himself have the grace to retire from public life. So what we should be doing is not engaging him – but retiring him ourselves.






Posted by on Mar 16, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

My most recent book – Hard Times: Leadership in America – was published in October by Stanford University Press. The book explores the impact of context on leadership and followership.

Beginning February 3, I started posting in this space excerpts. They are in the order in which they appear in the book.

Excerpt from Chapter 5 – Economics

“So why does it seem that economic leadership in twenty-first century America is in a class by itself – that difficult for leaders in general to exercise? First are the complexities of modern capitalism. On a theoretical level they are difficult if not impossible to master; on a practical level they are difficult if not impossible to tame.

Second, even the experts, such as the president’s economic advisers, cannot compensate for whatever the executive’s deficiencies. When Obama was elected, neither he nor his vice president, Joe Biden, had any demonstrable economic experience or expertise….

Third, economic leadership is difficult to exercise because power is diffused, divided between, among others, the president and the Congress, the White House and the Federal Reserve, the Federal Reserve and the financial services industry, and the public sector and the private one. There is no single lever of power.

Fourth the economy has gone global. What happens in the United States affects what happens elsewhere in the world. And what happens elsewhere in the world affects what happens in the United States.

Finally, economic leadership is so difficult to exercise because of democratic followership – “because the grave problems of American public finance will not yield to the populist solutions that command political and public support.’”



David Brooks on Leadership in America

Posted by on Mar 15, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

My most recent book, Hard Times: Leadership in America, makes the case that context matters. That leadership cannot be understood separate and apart from the context within which it is exercised.

The interesting thing is that every now and then someone comes along who makes the case at least as well as, or maybe better than, I do. One such is David Brooks, who in a recent column in the New York Times listed some of the contextual constraints on leadership in America – specifically on political leadership at the federal level.*

His point was that times have changed – that the political climate in Washington has changed so greatly in recent decades it’s barely recognizable. Here’s how he put it:

  • It used to be that senators did not go out campaigning against one another.
  • It used to be that senators did not filibuster except in rare circumstances.
  • It used to be that senators did not routinely block presidential nominations.
  • It used to be that senators did not write letters to hostile nations while their own president was negotiating with them.
  • It used to be that presidents did not push the limits of their executive authority.
  • It used to be that presidents did not go out negotiating arms control treaties in a way that did not require Senate ratification.

It used to be, in other words, that Washington was once a kinder, gentler place within which to do the nation’s business.

Notice the total absence in this analysis of any single individual. This is not about President Barack Obama, nor for that matter is it about Senator Ted Cruz. Rather it is about how all leaders in the nation’s capital are encased in a context that to an extent they shape, but that to an even greater extent shapes them.


*David Brooks, “Hillary Clinton’s Big Test,” New York Times, March 13, 2015.