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 10 – Technology
“Let me state this as plainly as I can: leaders in the second decade of the twenty-first century are by and large disadvantaged by having been born before the information revolution. The revolution changed so much of such importance – how information is collected, disseminated, and stored; how plain people communicate from one to the next; how followers expect leaders to lead; how followers respond when leaders do something they don’t like; the nature of work and of the workplace – leaders across the board seem forever to be playing catch-up, trying to control a context that to them is as unknowable as it is uncontrollable. One might reasonably argue, in fact, that one of the reasons the leadership industry has exploded in the past few decades, in the United States in particular, has been a free-floating feeling that those responsible for leading and managing are, in at least one critical area, ill-equipped to do so.”
Stunning how scared they are! Stunning how scared are Chinese and Russian leaders of Chinese and Russian followers!
It’s the single persuasive explanation for why officials in China and Russia have consistently clamped down. For the last several years they have been frightened of nothing so much as plain people threatening their hold on power. Threatening to claim their own voice. Threatening to challenge persons in positions of authority. Threatening to trigger their fall from power.
Not a week goes by without evidence of the syndrome. In China just recently the authorities detained dozens of rights lawyers and social activists; dozens more were summoned by the police, admonished, and warned not to speak publicly or to take any action on behalf of the detainees. In Russia just recently the MacArthur Foundation made the difficult decision to shut down its operations in Moscow, bowing to Russian lawmakers preparing to ban groups deemed “undesirable” and purportedly posing a threat to Russia’s security. Similarly, last month in Hong Kong, which is in thrall to Beijing, legislators failed to approve a system that would have allowed citizens a measure of freedom in their selection of chief executive. (Recall just last year Hong Kong activists seized center stage, by occupying key parts of the city for weeks.)
The question is how long? How long will Chinese leaders be able largely to stifle Chinese followers? How long will Russian leaders be able largely to stifle Russian followers? Of course I have no answer to these questions. What I do know though is that the trajectory of history does not favor the politically powerful over the politically powerless.
Compared to the subject of leadership, the subject of followership languishes. While the contributions of good followers and the consequences of bad followers are more widely appreciated than they used to be, the impact of those who are other than leaders is undervalued and ununderstood. If leadership is the belle of the ball, followership remains the stepchild, languishing out of the limelight.
The foolishness, the obtuseness, of this view was driven home again this week by what happened at Toshiba, the Japanese industrial and electronics giant that was discovered to have overstated its profits by more than $1.2 billion over a period of seven years.
When the news about one of Japan’s biggest ever accounting scandals broke, several of Toshiba’s most highly placed executives, including CEO Hisao Tanaka, resigned, apologized, and bowed publicly in contrition. In further keeping with Japanese culture and custom, Tanaka admitted at a packed press conference that Toshiba had suffered under his leadership, “what could be the biggest erosion of our brand image in our 140-year history.”
There is no question that in their attempt to inflate profits, Tanaka and other top Toshiba leaders engaged in a multi-year cover-up. But there is equally no question that they were not the only ones guilty of wrongdoing. Other employees, numberless subordinates, were cowed by their superiors and the corporate culture into keeping quiet, into concealing information that ideally they should have made public. In their recently released report, independent investigators concluded that mid-level managers had, however reluctantly, colluded in the wrongdoing by helping to cook the books.
I do not for a moment minimize the situation in which these mid-level managers, these subordinates, found themselves. The context was such that resistance to their superiors must have seemed impossible, maybe even unthinkable. But there is a literature on followership that makes clear that ordinary people are not immune from responsibility for bad outcomes. As Ira Chaleff puts it in his recent book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to do is Wrong, “we must develop the capacity to not only speak our truth… but to act on our truth … when authority is misusing power.” To do anything less is to join bad leaders by becoming bad followers – a truth about people without power no less important than similar truths about people with.
It has always had a strong appeal – being leaderless. There is something innately engaging about the idea that people might organize themselves in ways that are non-hierarchical, in ways that are totally democratic. Imagine! Everyone is the equal of everyone else. Imagine! No single man or woman has more of a say than does any other single man or woman.
Since time immemorial utopias have been built on the idea of this ideal. And so have countless social movements including, most recently, the Occupy movement. Nor is the principle of being leaderless confined to the political sphere. It has found a niche in the corporate sphere as well. In their widely read book The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom argue that whereas in “spider companies power and knowledge are concentrated at the top,” in starfish organizations “power is spread throughout.”
But, almost always, the dream of being leaderless is just that, a dream, a fantasy not a reality, at least not for any prolonged period of time. A recent case in point? Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, who has wanted nothing so much as to take his successful company and turn it into a successful democracy. In his quixotic quest, Hsieh embraced “Holacracy,” a system in which hierarchy and bureaucracy are supposed to be abolished or, at a minimum, drastically reduced. A system in which everyone has a voice – even an equal voice.
However according to a detailed piece in the New York Times (link below), two years into Holacracy, Zappos is anything but a workplace utopia. Among several reasons, those who are supposed most to benefit from it, don’t like it. While the majority of Zappos employees are willing to go along, most are unenthusiastic. And some number actually hate Holacracy. They complain it’s complicated and time-consuming, inefficient and unconducive to innovation. When Hsieh sent a 4,700 word e mail to everyone at the company accompanied by an ultimatum – embrace Holacracy or get out – fully 14 percent of the workforce up and left!
Of course Hsieh’s ultimatum conveys the conundrum: for all the talk about Holacracy being non- hierarchical, at Zappos it was imposed on those below by a CEO from on high. Hsieh did not exactly practice what he preached.
But there is another truth that has nothing to do with Zappos. Which is that history suggests that being leaderless is inimical to the human condition. The overwhelming evidence is that human animals, like other animals, prefer having someone at least a little bit in charge.
For ten years Angela Merkel has been the undisputed leader of Germany. What has become clear during the Greek financial crisis is that Germany is now the undisputed leader of Europe. At every turn it has been primarily Germany leading the European Union, and it has been primarily the Germans with whom the Greeks are having to negotiate the terms of a bailout.
With Merkel at the helm Germany’s striking resurgence in recent years – especially in comparison with England and France – has not presented a major problem. Other countries in the European Union, and the United States, have been content to let Germany take the lead. Among other reasons, Merkel herself is low key, anything other than blustery and boastful; anything other than inclined in any obvious way to throw her weight around. Years ago she seems to have deliberately, if not necessarily consciously, adopted a leadership style designed not to give offense, either at home or abroad.
But even Merkel is mortal. What will happen when her days as chancellor are over is impossible to know. It’s not inconceivable however that her successor will be a different sort of German altogether, one whose style if not substance is more difficult for the rest of the world to swallow.