It’s too early to come to firm conclusions. But it’s not too early to make preliminary assessments. Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House is not over. But, but it is almost over. So safe to rate the following:
- History will give Obama high marks for character. There is every evidence that he is a man of rectitude.
- History will give Obama high marks for temperament. There is every evidence that he is serious, stable, and psychologically secure.
- History will give Obama high marks for dignity. There is every evidence that he behaved throughout his time in the Oval Office in keeping with the nation’s highest office.
- History will give Obama low marks for interpersonal skills. There is every evidence that he failed to use his considerable personal charm, or even the perks of his presidential office, to firm his domestic political alliances, and, or, to win over his domestic political opposition, most obviously members of Congress.
- History will give Obama low marks for foreign policy. His deeply ingrained reluctance to use American power, or to even threaten to use it, has not served the West well. Moreover, America’s willingness to stand by and do nothing while the catastrophe that is Syria continues to drag on, will forever stain his presidency.
- History will give Obama high marks for domestic policy. Not so much for the passage of legislation – though he has had major legislative victories, including the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act – as for his use of executive power. Once Obama realized that if he was to continue to create change, he would have to do so without the benefit of a partnership with Congress, he took the regulatory route – full speed ahead. To quote from the New York Times, once Obama got a taste of it, “he pursued his executive power without apology, and in ways that will shape the presidency for decades to come.”* During his first seven years in office the president finalized 560 major regulations – nearly 50 percent more than did his predecessor during the comparable period. In coming years, Obama’s full-throated embrace of executive power will be seen as a significant extension of the reach of presidential leadership. During a time in which getting followers to go along is a task increasingly onerous, being able to create change without exercising presidential leadership in the traditional sense, will be an option attractive not only to the incumbent, but to his successors as well.
*Binyamin Applebaum and Michael D. Shear, “How the President Came to Embrace Executive Power,” August 14, 2016.
Far be it from me to blame the victims. The culture at Fox News was toxic. And the punishment for doing anything but kowtowing was potentially professionally lethal.
Still, it is impossible for someone like me to look at what happened at Fox without raising the subject of followership. Without raising the subject of what happens when a wretchedly bad leader succeeds in frightening followers into remaining mute.
Ever since former Fox Anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit against former Fox behemoth Roger Ailes, former Fox women (and one prominent present woman) have come out of the woodwork. More than twenty women – 20! – finally came forward to say that Ailes had sexually harassed them, in some cases decades ago.
Which raises the question: Why did these women stay silent for so long? Why did they stay silent until after Gretchen Carlson went public?
It’s clear that Carlson’s decision go public and hold power accountable emboldened the others. Moreover, it’s clear why they waited for someone else – someone who, not incidentally, had already been professionally successful – to take the risk. But let’s be clear. Had these victims spoken out sooner, Fox’s miserably misogynistic culture and its miserably misogynistic leader would sooner have been upended.
Followers matter. Not just leaders.
So sayeth Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management. (Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, August 10.)
Is he scary – or funny?! I suspect that Professor Sonnenfeld regrets his remark, which looks perfectly foolish on paper. After all, we now have thirty plus years of extensive research and writing on women and leadership – so it’s not exactly as if they’re an unknown species, only recently emerged from under a rock.
The article focused – yet again, ho-hum – on Marissa Mayer. But here’s what’s interesting. While we fixate on a handful of female stars – one Hillary Clinton comes to mind – the numbers stay stubbornly the same. There are some exceptions to this general rule – about which more another time – but by and large the number of women at or even near the top remains low. To take just a single random example, the number of women on the boards of the United Kingdom’s largest companies is just over 25%. This figure is hardly any higher than it was in 2011, when a 25% target was initially set. (The target has since been updated, to 33% by 2020.)
Here’s my point. It’s not that we’re “just learning how to understand women as leaders.” We understand a lot about “women as leaders.” It’s just that we don’t see a lot of women as leaders. There’s a distinction, in other words, between what we know and what we see. It’s a distinction Professor Sonnenfeld would do well to bear in mind.
The word “totalitarian” – as in totalitarianism, or totalitarian leader – was once in fashion. Now we hardly hear it anymore, but in the 1950’s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, it was used with some frequency, certainly by political scientists, especially when referencing Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Hannah Arendt’s classic, Origins of Totalitarianism, originally published in 1951, gave the word a certain currency, which for decades thereafter it maintained.
However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and obviously the defeat of Nazi Germany, the word has lapsed in our lexicon. Seemed almost obsolete. But, it is not. Just because Great Dictators no longer control so much of the earth’s surface does not mean that they are extinct.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin controls what he can, though he cannot be a totalitarian leader without risking his neck. And China’s Xi Jinping controls what he can, though he cannot be a totalitarian leader without risking his neck.
There is, however, one totalitarian leader without question – one leader who violates the general rule. Who has total control over every aspect of civilian and military life in the country in his grip. I refer, of course, to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. His father, Kim Jong-il, ruled North Korea from 1994 until his death, in 2011. Since then North Korea has been ruled by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, with no less than the proverbial iron fist.
How is a totalitarian leader distinguished from an authoritarian leader? Or from a despotic or dictatorial leader? The answer is as the word implies: the continuous capacity to exercise total control over everyone and everything. How is this accomplished? The shortest answer: through terror. It is not the only answer. Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written about the phenomenon of totalitarianism. But the easiest way to understand why followers submit so completely and obsequiously to a single leader is that they are scared to death of doing otherwise.
For good reason. When the most serious threat to Jong-un’s authority was thought by him to be his uncle, he arranged for his father’s sister’s husband to be seized by uniformed guards in front of hundreds of high-ranking officials. After being denounced as “an ugly human scum worse than a dog,” Jong-un’s uncle was summarily executed by a firing squad. Many of his followers were similarly killed, others sent away to labor camps. I could go on – but you get the idea. Evil leadership takes many forms – totalitarian leadership typically is the most extreme.
Bad leadership – it’s worth regularly reminding ourselves – is a slippery slope. It can go from bad to worse. And from worse to worst.
It’s curious that good leadership at the International Olympic Committee has been a standard so difficult to meet. It’s curious because, given the Olympic ideal, which is performance at the highest level of excellence, one would think its leadership of similar caliber. But it is not. For decades now the I.O.C. presidency has been shrouded by a cloud of suspicion.
In my book Bad Leadership, I wrote extensively about Juan Antonio Samaranch, a Spaniard who was president of the I.O.C. for over twenty years (from 1980 to 2001), but whose reputation as a leader has since been shredded. Derided for his love of money and luxury, for his cronyism and capitalism, and for cozying up to dictators who sanctioned doping, Samaranch bequeathed the presidency of the I.O.C. to Jacques Rogge. A Belgian, whose tenure was less questionable, Rogge nevertheless presided over a series of controversies, including tolerating internet censorship in China during the 2008 summer games.
Now the I.O.C. is led by a German, Thomas Bach. Bach has been president only since 2013, but his time in office has already been other than stellar. Whatever the shining moments in Rio, the games have already been marred, especially by Bach’s decision not to bar all Russian athletes from participating – in spite of the massive evidence of state-sponsored doping.
As Juliet Macur put it, writing in the New York Times, “Instead of using the power of the I.O.C. to stand up to Russia, a nation whose highest sports officials have been implicated in a doping program that lasted at a minimum from 2011 to 2015, Bach withered…. Bach could have set a strong example for nations who dare to cheat…. But he failed, and in so many ways, too. As a Leader. As a voice for clean sports and clean athletes. As someone expected to keep his word.” *
What is it about good leadership? Why is good leadership – leadership that is effective and ethical – so damn difficult to find?! Even among Olympians?
- July 26, 2016.