The Leadership Industry – Abdication of Responsibility

For years I’ve written about, talked about, bad leadership. And for years I’ve wondered why among putative leadership experts I’ve been among the few who chose to do so.

Perhaps it’s because for most of the half century life of the leadership industry the American experience of bad leadership was something of an abstraction. This is not to say that Americans have had no bad leaders. Quite the contrary, we did. But at least at the national level – specifically the presidential level – our leadership was, broadly speaking, good enough. The single exception to this general rule was Richard Nixon, who was dispatched with relative dispatch.

Since the presidency of Donald Trump this has no longer been the case. He has been so manifestly unfit, in every way, to hold the nation’s highest office that to discuss him per se is no longer of any interest.  But what is of interest, of practical consequence, is the nation’s paralysis given a chief executive who is neither suitable nor capable. We lack an adequate response at the individual level and at the institutional one. We are stuck. Americans are stuck with the worst of all possible leaders – while being unable and/or unwilling to do anything about it. Had Trump been Chief Executive Officer of a company instead of a country, his wretchedly ineffective and woefully unethical leadership would never have been tolerated. Not for a week or a month not to speak of a year. But here we are, America, stuck.

The leadership industry prides itself on having experts of various kinds – scholars and instructors, practitioners, consultants, and coaches, you name it. Moreover, the leadership industry has yielded countless, numberless, teaching materials – programs and trainings; courses and workshops, books and articles. What it has not provided is even the most modest information or slightest instruction on what to do when saddled with a leader who is bad. Is it that we, we putative leadership experts, are unable to respond, or is it that we are unwilling? In the event of the former, it is our professional responsibility to address what we have ignored. In the event of the latter, it is our moral responsibility to hang up our spurs.

Poor Xi. What’s a Dictator Like He to Do?

In the old days, no problem. When a dictator wanted to eliminate his enemies, he simply went ahead and did it. Arranged for them to disappear or, maybe, not disappear. Maybe to be found dead on the street or in the bush, to serve as a warning to anyone who would cross him.

Even today by and large that’s what happens. When dictators want to erase their opposition, they do so, without apparent compunction or contrition. Anything to preserve their power. Meantime we, we Americans, generally pay them no mind, even when they kill with apparent abandon. Mostly we are too busy or too oblivious or too distracted or too uninformed or too indifferent or too pitiless even to pay attention, not to speak of care.

But every now and then a dictator comes along who is impossible to ignore – who for various reasons matters even to Americans. Such a leader is Xi Jinping. Why does Xi matter? The list is long – but close to the top of the list is his most obvious opposition. Which is not, of course, in mainland China, but in Hong Kong. His opponents in Hong Kong are so large in their numbers, so persistent in their protests, and so skilled at attracting global attention that for now at least they symbolize the struggle between autocracy and democracy. This struggle is not new; it’s been going on in Hong Kong for five years. But in the last two months it’s been relentless, so ceaseless that the Chinese authorities have had no choice but to address it.

Here’s the tricky part. Xi Jinping does not have the luxury of his predecessors or even of most of his dictatorial contemporaries. Should he decide to use force, to bring in the army to subdue the people, the price he will pay is certain to be high. The world is watching. Hong Kong is center stage and there’s no bloodying anyone, least of all a young protester, without incurring global outrage.  

Which is why at least up now the Communist Party of China – read Xi Jinping – has exercised unaccustomed restraint. To be sure, the Chinese authorities have done something. They have tried to crush the opposition by hiding their iron fist in a velvet glove. Tried to outmaneuver their Hong Kong opponents by, for example, manipulating social media, putting the squeeze on business, and limiting access to the mainland. So far though nothing has worked. Maybe nothing will work – short of using violence to force the people of Hong Kong to toe China’s line.  How risky a tactic would that be? Clearly so risky that Xi himself is reluctant to use it.  What an irony – a near all-powerful leader on the horns of a most difficult and possibly dangerous dilemma.

You’re a leader? Fine. But to whom are you responsible?

In a book I wrote fifteen years ago titled, Bad Leadership, I described seven different types of bad leadership, one of which was Insular.

Insular leadership is when the leader and at least some followers minimize or disregard the health and welfare of “the other” – that is, those outside the group or organization for which they are directly responsible.

I described among others the case of Lee Raymond, who for years was chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon, the largest energy company in the United States. But while he was leading Exxon, Raymond was also the most powerful and outspoken oil industry executive against any and all efforts to contain global warming. Additionally, he had zero compunction about cooperating with repressive regimes. As Forbes put it, Raymond was “unapologetic about making deals with regimes that lean toward the diabolical.” But … was Raymond an effective CEO – good for Exxon and everyone directly associated with it, especially stockholders? He was.

Which raises this question: To whom are leaders responsible?  Are they responsible only to those who are their obvious constituents? Or do they bear some responsibility also to a wider public? Do leaders of, say, large publicly held companies have any responsibility at all for the general welfare? Or are they accountable only to those directly in their line of sight?

The question is always important, especially this week in the United States, where because of two recent mass shootings gun violence as a political issue is front and center, again. Writing in the New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin took a novel approach. He wrote what was, in effect, an open letter to Doug McMillon, who is CEO of Walmart, the largest seller of guns in the United States.    

Sorkin wrote, “You, singularly, have a greater chance to use your role as the chief executive of the country’s largest retailer and largest seller of guns – with greater sway of the entire ecosystem that controls guns sales in the United States than any other individual in corporate America…. It is your moral responsibility to see that it stops.” *

I am sympathetic to Sorkin’s point. But is he right? Is it clear that McMillon is responsible to Americans generally rather than to, say, Walmart stockholders specifically? If the latter is true, then the measure of what constitutes a successful CEO must change. For decades this measure primarily has been profits and stock performance. If profits are up and the stock goes up great, no matter the fallout. If, though, profits are down and the stock goes down, the CEO is likely to be in trouble, whatever his or her other virtues. For example, when the Harvard Business Review (HBR) ranks the “best-performing CEOs” it uses this measure: “financial returns over each CEO’s entire tenure.” To be sure, HBR now also “factors in” ratings on environmental, social and governance issues. But it’s clear that financial performance is the measure that matters much the most.

So, until our assessments are line with our values, nothing much will change. Overwhelmingly private sector leaders will shy from becoming involved in public sector problems because doing so is as likely to punish as reward them.

Back to Doug McMillon. What has he done in response to the two mass murders? So far he has given the order to remove from Walmart’s shelves violent video games. So far he has not given the order to remove from Walmart’s shelves so much as one gun.



The Myth of Work-life Balance

For years, our attention has been drawn to the tension between “work” and “life.” Employers and their employees, superiors and their subordinates, leaders and their managers all have been told to focus or even fixate on how to jam the demands of a full-time job and the demands of a full-time family in a day with just 24 hours.  

Many countries and companies have responded to the dilemma, tried to address it by offering a range of family friendly policies and programs including part time, flex time, leave time, subsidized childcare, subsidized eldercare, and greater freedom and flexibility.  Women particularly have taken advantage of these offerings – far more often and for longer periods of time than men – though the problem of how to divide time and cope with the relentless demands, especially on families with young children, persists.

But the conversation is based on an unproven assumption – that balance is Nirvana. Balance in all things all the time. Leaders are encouraged to live a balanced life, to wit leadership expert Bill George, in whose view “balanced leaders develop healthier organizations.” More generally, followers as well as leaders are forever being encouraged to strive for work-life balance, all because of the conventional wisdom that balance is best.

Setting aside the question of whether balanced leaders are better leaders – a question that seems still open – is the matter of whether work-life balance is all it’s cracked up to be. Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be in the event either work or life is of primary importance? Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be no matter the circumstance at work or at home? Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be both at age 25 and at age 65? Or are there, personal and professional circumstances in which work-life balance makes no sense? Or even is detrimental as opposed to beneficial?

These questions came to mind recently, while I was reading the Financial Times of July 22nd. In one part of the paper was an article by a Brigid Schulte, who directs the Better Life Lab at New America. Worried that gender equity had “stalled,” she advised companies to make work-life balance a “key performance metric.” But, in another part of the paper, was an article whose message was quite the opposite. It was a piece about the fabulously successful media mogul, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg, it was reported, famously had a motto – “If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Monday.”

I am not defending Katzenberg’s personal or professional choice – or his leadership style. What I am defending is the position that balance and bliss are not the same. That while balance might work best for most, it does not necessarily work best for all.

Leaderless and Rudderless – the Dems

Whereas the Republicans have at the helm a charismatic leader – Donald Trump’s ability to attract attention and admirers remains remarkable – the Democrats have at the helm no leader at all. This became clear again today, when they proved incapable, completely incapable, of using Robert Mueller’s testimony to significant effect.

Part of the reason obviously was that Mueller failed persuasively to present either himself or his report. But part of the reason was that none of the Congressional Democrats have the magnetism to pull us into their orbit.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, leader of the House Judiciary Committee? For all his reliability and resolve, I don’t think so. Congressman Adam Schiff, leader of the House Intelligence Committee? For all his insight and intelligence, I don’t think so. Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – cautious to a fault and dithering ineffectually on impeachment – doesn’t cut it. As she proved again today, when she spoke after the proceedings were over, she’s the leader in name only. She’s failed completely – though in fairness it’s not clear she’s even tried – to capture the public imagination.

The same can be said about the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. For the moment there’s too many of them – who can remember each of their names, not to speak of distinguish the one from the other? And for the moment not one stands out, stands head and shoulders above the rest because he or she is so obviously convincing and compelling. Even the front runners – Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris – have yet to prove they can cut it. Have yet to prove they could conceivably take on Mr. Charisma and be the one left standing. Meantime it’s Trump who continues to hold center stage. It’s he who continues the star of the circus.

The Leadership Industry – a Lament

We in the leadership industry are responsible – at least in part.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for the miserable mess that is American politics.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for the diminution and degradation of American political culture.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for the fact that not since the advent of political polling have our leaders been as disliked, disrespected, and distrusted as they are now.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for sending the message that leaders can be novices – completely inexperienced, altogether inexpert, and wholly untested. As was Donald Trump when he was elected president of the United States.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for sending the wrong message. For sending the message that learning to lead is simple – that it can be accomplished as quickly as easily.   

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for not sending the right message – that learning to lead is hard. That learning to lead involves each of these three: leadership education, leadership training, and leadership development.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for not getting our act together: for not cooperating and collaborating, among ourselves, to agree on a core curriculum, to set minimal standards, and first to aspire to and then to achieve professionalism.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for failing to develop a widely accepted and deeply respected analogue to the Hippocratic oath.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for the fact that America’s followers – the American people – have never been taught that good leadership absent good followership is not only improbable but impossible.   

A Leader is Born

Megan Rapinoe is just getting started and already she’s being compared to Billie Jean King and Muhammed Ali. Two other athlete-activists who left an enduring mark on American sports, American politics, and American culture.  

My guess though is that Rapinoe will turn out different. Only time will tell, of course. All I can do is imagine what she’ll be like ten, twenty years from now. But to listen closely to what she says and to how she says it is to witness a woman who is being nothing if not deliberate, and who is doing nothing if not preparing in the present for her future. For her future as a leader. I don’t mean a leader just in sports, which already she is. Or a leader just in the fight for equal rights, which already she is.  I mean a leader with a capital “L.” A leader in the largest sense of this word – a leader of, say, the United Nations or the United States.  

King and Ali were reactive: they reacted to the situations in which they found themselves. Rapinoe is similarly reactive – she does respond to cues from the contexts within which she is situated. But, additionally, she is proactive. She ventures forth, looks as far into the distance as she possibly can, and then dares to report what’s broke and to tell us how to fix it.

Rapinoe is riding the wave. She is intensely aware of the incredible, indelible, moment in which she finds herself – and intensely aware that it was she who, more than any other single individual, is credited with creating it. But she is also smart enough to be inclusive in her accomplishments; she is also ambitious enough to plan for when her career as a (soccer) player is over; and she is also tough enough to take on, even now, anyone anywhere who has the temerity to get in her way. Megan Rapinoe is no ordinary star athlete. She is a leader who will, in time, almost certainly become more influential and, ultimately, consequential.  


An assassination is a murder. But the word “assassination” is usually reserved for the murder of a prominent person – often a politician picked off for political reasons.

Recently was an assassination about which most Americans never heard. Never heard though it occurred in a country that is, or it should be, one of America’s closest and most important allies. Never heard though it triggered in the staid, stable Financial Times an editorial with a decidedly alarming headline, “German Radical Right Threatens the Survival of Democracy.”  

Everyone who pays attention to these things knows that in the wake of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to admit into Germany a million or more immigrants, refugees, seekers of safe havens, has been a political resurgence of Germany’s extreme right wing. For obvious reasons such a resurgence in Germany particularly has historical resonance. But, additionally, contemporaneously, in the last several years has been a surge in rightwing activity not just virtually, online, but actually – in the streets and in the corridors of power.  

Still, the assassination on June 1st of a popular politician, Walter Luebcke, by a single shot in the head fired at close range, is another matter entirely. Given it was the first murder of a politician by a rightwing extremist in Germany’s postwar history, it is not too much to insist that though attention has not been paid, attention must be paid.      

The difference is of significance. Laypeople are murdered, leaders are assassinated.  

Following Followers

Yesterday was one of those days. Impossible to follow the news without being reminded of just how much the world has changed, even in the last ten years. It’s not that leaders have become less important. It’s that followers have become more important. Important to the point where focusing on leadership to the exclusion of followership is to focus wrong.

  • The previously promising presidential campaign of the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, has been derailed, possibly permanently. Derailed by African American residents of South Bend, furiously protesting the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer.
  • The dictatorial leader of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suffered his most stinging defeat in years. In consequence, Erdogan has lost, at least for now, electoral control of Istanbul, by far Turkey’s most consequential city.
  • The protests in Prague were the largest in the Czech Republic since 1989. Well over 200,000 people took to the streets to demand the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Anrej Babis. Babis has long been accused of corruption and malfeasance. Signs are anger against him has reached a boiling point, a point at which sweeping change transitions from request to requirement.  

I cannot foretell the future. It’s possible that all this sound and fury will in the end among to nothing. But, it’s just as possible that Buttigieg’s heyday is over. That Erdogan’s heyday is over. And that Babis’s heyday is over.

Women and Leadership – Redux (June 2019)

Women and Leadership – Redux (June 2019)

Women and leadership – it’s one of my running themes. And why not? Among the reasons to continue the conversation:

  • While during the last couple of decades more women have secured positions of leadership, the number of women at the top remains low, very low. This applies to virtually every place on the planet.
  • While during the last couple of decades the amount of ink spilled discussing women and leadership has been, shall we say, abundant, change continues more incremental than impressive.
  • While the situation remains static and our fretting about it does the same, the heart of the matter, the beating heart of the matter, is still being sidelined.  

You forget what I wrote was the heart of the matter – the beating heart of the matter?  It’s babies. It’s that women bear babies and men do not.

Some stats:

  • In recent years American women have increased the amount of time they spend on their jobs.
  • American women who work outside the home spend an average of seven hours and 20 minutes each day on the job.  
  • American working women spend about a half-hour more each day than American men on household chores such as cleaning and cooking.
  • American working women with young children spend about two hours a day on tasks related to childrearing. American working men spend less than an hour and a half per day doing the same.  
  • In 2018 American women worked longer and played less than they did in 2017. They also slept less. *

Some facts:

  • Pregnant women who carry a baby to term reach the same peak levels of endurance as Ironman competitors.
  • Human mothers have the biggest children and the longest pregnancies of all apes.
  • Over 80 % of new mothers start out breastfeeding their children.
  • Breastfeeding is usually a positive experience for mother and child. At the same time, it makes demands on the mother, physical and psychological, that are not easily compatible with full time employment. These demands include time and energy, special attention to nutrition and caloric intake, and the need for enough rest and adequate sleep.

Those of us who still wonder why, despite the many high ambitions and the many good intentions, the number of women who lead continues to remain comparatively low have only to look at the whole truth. A truth that includes the impact on women of being solely responsible for bearing the baby and birthing the baby – and then largely responsible for raising it.  

And oh, then there is this!

In the United States today are nearly 12.6 million single parents raising over 21 million children. Of single parents only 16 percent are fathers. Which means that approximately 84% of single parents are mothers. Still wonder why so few leaders are women?   


*Theses figures are from the annual U. S. Labor Department Time Use Survey.