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Leader Beleaguered

Posted by on Nov 24, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

You can say many things about the present of the University of Virginia – Teresa Sullivan – but you cannot say that her tenure has been uneventful. In fact you can say the opposite: her roughly four years in office have been punctuated by two major crises of confidence.

Sullivan became president of UVA in 2010. Two years later she was ousted by the Board of Trustees for what euphemistically were called “philosophical differences.” In response to her ouster were protests – by alumni, faculty, students, and other members of the campus community – so strong and widespread that she was reinstated.

And now, another two years on, there is this: an article in Rolling Stone about a single rape and culture of sexual violence on the UVA campus that is so damning it has ignited a national firestorm.

In response to the breaking story Sullivan scurried home from a conference in the Netherlands, took several remedial steps, and issued a strong statement, “A Message from President Sullivan Regarding Sexual Violence.” But, given she has been president of UVA for four years, did she do much too little much too late?

This weekend, Larry Summers, the esteemed economist and former president of Harvard University, chanced to weigh in on financial sector leaders who presided over wrongdoing. His observation is not new – that institutions have been held accountable, but individuals have not – but coming from him it carries special weight.

Summers writes: “Punishment of individuals who do wrong or who fail in their managerial duty to monitor the behavior of their subordinates is short changed…. The principle that leaders should resign to take responsibility for failure on their watch even when they did not directly do wrong is [not well] established in the US. This is probably an area where we have something to learn.”  (Link below.)

Sullivan might contemplate Summers’s commentary. Once it is proven that crimes of violence went unpunished on her watch, she should resign effective immediately. Only her own voluntary abdication of authority will serve as an instruction on how honorably to behave in the event you fall shockingly short of leading wisely and well.




Where are they – the Women Leaders?

Posted by on Nov 22, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

Amazing how much attention has been paid  in recent years to the subject of women at or near the top of the greasy pole!

The two articles for which I provide links below are only the latest examples of grist for this mill – of themselves evidence that the topic of women in positions of authority remains hot.

For the purpose of this blog I will make just three short points – the last in the form of a few questions.

  • There is a distinction to be made between “high achieving women” and women leaders. The two are not synonymous. Being in charge, being ultimately responsible for the well-being of a group or organization, implies demands that considerably exceed those of being, merely if you will, high achieving.
  • The figures from the Nordic countries – I call them Fantasylands, for they provide nearly everything that the rest of us can only dream about, including generous family leaves and first rate child care – are especially sobering.  They compel us to consider why the leadership class remains so heavily male-dominated even when it is embedded in a context that is so strikingly, certainly comparatively, supportive?
  • Is there anything going on here that’s generally left unsaid? Is there anything missing from both these articles that remains to be fully explored? Is it possible that our proclivity to political correctness is stopping us from looking at everything that there is to look at? Guess what I believe to be true!



The Leadership Industry

Posted by on Nov 15, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

Business is booming. At least in the private sector. US spending on corporate training grew by 15% in 2013, and is on track to grow as much or more this year. The numbers are impressive: $70 billion was spent in the US and over $130 billion worldwide.* The biggest investment in corporate training is in leadership and management, confirming yet again the gap between the leaders that we think we have and the leaders that we think we ought to have.

Spending on leadership training, specifically in corporate America, is counter-intuitive. It goes down when the evidence suggests that leaders are bad and more training is needed. And it goes up when the evidence suggests that leaders are good and less training is needed. More precisely, corporate spending on leadership development is a reliable indicator of economic activity. When business slows it goes down; when business picks up so does spending on training.

Invariably, leadership training, or leadership development, or leadership education, raises the issue of leadership for what? What is the purpose of trying to teach leadership? The answer of course is, it depends. It depends on the context within which the question is asked.

Where I work – at the Harvard Kennedy School – the word “leadership” implies something good, as in leadership for the common good, leadership for public service. But in corporate America the meaning is different. In corporate America the word leadership suggests a context confined to the company. This does not imply that the interests of the company and the interests of the general public inevitably are at odds. In fact, there is more attention now than there used to be to corporate social responsibility. But it does mean that in corporate American leadership training is for the purpose of training leaders to turn a profit. They are trained to do right by the organization within which they work – not necessarily to do right by the community more generally.

The success of any single leadership training program is famously difficult to measure. It’s an issue about which I’ve written extensively, and it is not one easily amenable to amelioration. Suffice it to say here, for now, that on one level corporate leadership development in recent years has been successful. By many criteria the American economy is doing well, certainly in comparison with the economies of other Western democracies. But there are other ways of judging leadership training – about which more in subsequent posts.


*The figures are from Josh Bersin, “Spending on Corporate Training Soars: Employee Capabilities Now a Priority,” February 4, 2014.



On Germany … On Veteran’s Day

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

George Santayana famously claimed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To the extent that this is true, Germany is in no danger of repeating its 20th century history. No place on the planet has done more to memorialize its own heinous past.

Since Germany was reunified and Berlin designated its capital in 1994, its attempt at redemption has been focused on the Holocaust. The question of how adequately to commemorate its victims has been addressed in part by the establishment of scores of Holocaust memorial sites, some of which are minor, and others of which are major, even monumental. Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by architect Peter Eisenmann, stretches 4.7 acres, with a centerpiece consisting of some 2,500 geometrically arranged concrete pillars, situated on a deliberately slanted slope.

Memorials like these have been called “counter-monuments” or “anti-redemptive” because they seek not to perpetuate the memory of a noble past, but to perpetuate the memory of an ignoble one. Never forgetting becomes tantamount to forever atoning – and to never repeating.

The memorializing of the Holocaust continues even now. Beneath the spanking new headquarters of the European Central Bank, in Frankfurt, is a basement just designated a monument. It consists only of rooms that between 1941 and 1945 kept captive some 10,000 Jews, until they could be deported to concentrations camps. The rooms remain bare – silent testimony.

While Germans have grappled with their Nazi past for decades, they are only now coming to grips with their Communist past. Between roughly 1945 and 1990 East Germany was a communist state. Some of the implications of this are mundane – lives that in some ways were cherished, but in other ways were difficult, grayer in any case and more meager than those of their West German capitalist counterparts.

There is, however, one aspect of life under communism that resembles life under Nazism, and that therefore requires similar  scrutiny. It was the Stasi, or Secret Police. The Stasi was modeled on the Soviet Cheka: it was famously oppressive and repressive and, equally famously, it was intrusive. It pried into people’s private lives and, if they were in any way suspect, spied on them, harassed them, and even arrested them. By 1989, on the eve of its dissolution, the Stasi had 91,000 full time employees, and a network of 189,000 informers.

In recent years, as former East Germans have aged and died, and as historical records, especially Stasi archives, have become available, Germany has begun carefully to examine this chapter in its history.  It now has exhibitions, museums, and memorials dedicated to exploring its Communist past, including, in Berlin, a Stasi Museum. With the passage of time, then, has come an unprecedented attempt by Germans to own their past – in its entirety.

Only time will tell what impact grappling with Germany’s recent past will have on Germany’s distant future – if any. We cannot now know if counter-monuments immunize against evil. What we can do, though, is to respect those intent not on burying their painful past, but bent instead on exposing it to the harsh light of day.

A Reason to Revolt

Posted by on Nov 6, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

Three quarters of a year after General Motors finally began recalling millions of vehicles for a dangerously defective ignition switch – a danger it had known about for years – almost half have still not been fixed.

In some cases the reasons for the inaction are the fault of the owners themselves. Many have not gone to the shop for the necessary repair. But in other cases – the numbers are opaque – “even owners who requested repairs months ago have been waiting, with dealers managing wait-lists and dozens of drivers writing to federal regulators in recent weeks asking why it was taking so long.”* This is no trivial matter. The defect in question has been linked not only to serious injury but also to deaths.

The continuing wait for repairs is unconscionable, certainly in those cases where drivers are aggressively prodding GM to take prompt remedial action. The question then is why is GM getting away with it? Why is there no public outrage targeted directly at the company – hey, how about a boycott of all GM products?! – in order to force it to act today, not tomorrow?

To this question are two answers, neither of them satisfactory. First, the overwhelming majority of us don’t care – or, at least, we don’t care enough to lift a finger. Second is the atomization, the isolation of individuals around the country who have been hurt by GM’s outrageous negligence, but have no idea what to do about it. They don’t know others in similar situations. And they don’t know how to organize a public protest that is loud enough and lasts long enough to make a difference – to fight General Motors until every last car that has a defective ignition switch has been repaired.

There is reason to revolt against GM until it gets all of its customers out of harm’s way.  Connecting through social media would be a way to begin the rebellion – if only one or two angered Americans would step up to the plate and take the lead!