“How To Be a First-Rate Subordionate”

Nothing against Isabel Berwick, who recently wrote a column so titled for the Financial Times. Credit where credit is due: at least she focused on subordinates, as opposed to fixating like everyone else, on superiors.

But her advice, as it were, was so puny and pathetic, her piece turned out an unwitting reminder of how fallow the field of followership. She had just two suggestions.  First, subordinates should deliberately be selfish. Since they have no major managerial responsibilities, they should use their freedom to pursue their passions. Second, subordinates should manage up, not by being toadying, but by being forthright. They should, in other words, recognize that “they have a part in making relationships work.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that – with either of these two bits of suggestions. Rather it’s that how to be a “first-rate subordinate” is far richer and deeper, more complex an issue than Berwick suggests. Whatever her good intention, her column does little more than point to the yawning gap between our understanding of leadership and our understanding of followership.


Bad Bosses – A Plague

For years I’ve been baffled by the ubiquity of bad bosses – and the propensity of people to do nothing about it. Surveys testify to the widespread dissatisfaction with superiors by their subordinates, and plenty of anecdotal evidence is in support. Whenever I ask audience members who among them has never had a “bad boss,” those raising their hands constitute a feeble fraction of the whole.

No question that bad bosses are a phenomenon as malevolent as prevalent.  They harm not only individuals – bad bosses induce bad feelings and bad health – but institutions. The data suggest, for example, that lower rates of productivity are correlated to higher rates of job dissatisfaction.

All of which raises the question of why we continue to tolerate superiors who give subordinates short shrift; employers who treat employees carelessly or callously; bosses who interact with underlings as if, somehow, they were lesser.

Generally, it’s difficult for those with less power and authority to take on those with more, especially in the workplace. Personal and professional costs tend to be high; personal and professional benefits tend to be low.

The solution to the problem then is not at the level of the individual, but at the level of the institution. Specifically, private sector organizations should lead the way by rejecting once and for all the single, dominant metric of corporate performance – shareholder price. Shareholder price has been the yardstick by which corporate leaders have been measured for years. But, as Rana Foroohar points out in the Financial Times, a modest movement’s afoot to add at least one more metric, involvement in significant social and political issues.

But, I would argue that before adding this criterion, there’s another that’s more important. Employers should be judged in considerable measure on their employees’ engagement. Superiors should be judged in considerable measure on their subordinates’ satisfaction. Leaders should be judged in considerable measure on their followers’ fulfillment.

Holding bad bosses accountable for their own bad behavior would go a long way toward ending their iron grip on those otherwise obliged to suffer in silence.


Corporate Leaders? Or Corporate Followers?

Questions: What do The First National Bank of Omaha and Alamo Rent a Car have in common? What does MetLife share with Delta Airlines? What’s the similarity between Symantec and Allied Van Lines?

Answers: In recent days leaders of each of these companies cut (though not entirely) their connections to the National Rifle Association. In recent days leaders of each of these companies made a business decision based on pressures exerted by followers. In recent days leaders of each of these companies was constrained both by changing cultures and technologies.

Gun control is one of the issues – others include immigration and discrimination – on which America’s business leaders are being pushed to take positions they preferred to avoid. Until now leaders of the above-named companies were content to maintain their previously existing ties to the gun lobby. Only in response to political pressures – mainly from young people and their allies using social media to express outrage – from below did they finally conclude that the better part of valor was to change course.

58% of millennials, 55% pf GenXers, and 51% of baby boomers think it important that the businesses and brands they support reflect their views on issues their care about. Recently frayed ties to the NRA do not, then, reflect corporate leadership so much as they do corporate followership.

Being a Mother, Being a Leader Redux – Gender Wage Gap, Gender Leadership Gap

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the impact of motherhood on leadership. More specifically, each is about the impact of being a mother, especially of babies and young children, on the ambition of women actively to pursue positions of leadership.

Here I argue that new research on the persistence of the gender wage gap is equally pertinent to the persistence of the gender leadership gap. Recent findings indicate that the reason for the gender wage gap is not what we thought. It is not, for example, gender discrimination, or choice of profession – women working in fields that pay less. Instead the wage gap between women and men is a penalty for bearing children.

The research was conducted by Princeton University economist Henrik Kleven, and described in a recent article in Vox.* Kleven found a “sharp decline” in women’s earnings after the birth of their first child – with no comparable salary drop for men. Put differently, the earnings of women who are childless are the approximate equivalent of men’s; the earnings of women with children are significantly lower. This wage gap persists across countries and cultures, even in Scandinavia, with its exceedingly flexible and generous family friendly public policies.

What happens in Denmark is a case in point. While on paper parents are allowed to split up their parental leave equally, in practice it doesn’t happen. In practice, Danish women take off fully 90% of time after the birth of a child – with men accounting for only 10 percent of parental leave. Why?

For the public record Kleven says there are two possible explanations. One is nurture – an environment in which social norms encourage women, not men, to be the primary caregivers. The other is nature – women could have a stronger preference than men for spending time on childcare.  Which again raises the question, why? Why might women have this stronger preference?

To answer the question, I turn to prehistory. To a world in which only mothers had the capacity to ensure the survival of the species – that is, to feed their helpless infants. To a world in which fathers provided direct care of their offspring in only 5% of mammal species.


George and Amal Clooney, Followers. George and Amal Clooney, Leaders.

This is how it works. How people can be two things at the same time – followers and leaders.

Two days ago, the Clooneys followed the lead of the Florida teens who spearheaded the March for Our Lives, the anti-gun violence rally scheduled to take place on March 24 in Washington DC. Moreover, the Clooneys went all out. First, they made their position public. Second, they donated half a million dollars to the cause. Third, they announced that they personally would take part in the March. “Our family will be there on March 24 to stand side by side with this incredible generation of young people from all over the country.” Finally, they signaled their role – they were followers, they were following the lead of “this incredible generation of young people.”

In this single stroke, the Clooneys became, simultaneously, leaders. They inspired other people – other very, very famous, and very, very rich, and very, very powerful people – to join their cause. Such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and his wife, Marilyn. Such as Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw. Such as Oprah Winfrey who made clear that it was the Clooneys’ lead that inspired her to follow. “George and Amal,” she tweeted, “I couldn’t agree with you more. I am joining forces with you and will match your $500,000 donation to ‘March For Our Lives.’”

Yes, this is how it works – how being a leader and a being a follower are not mutually exclusive.  Along with the “young people” themselves, the Clooneys made certain that the March March will be an event for the ages.



And the Children Shall Lead

In the wake of the latest school shooting at a south Florida high school, some 30 students at another south Florida high school took to the streets to protest. Their message was clear, and it was targeted directly at their elders. Elders who freely offered their “thoughts and prayers,” but who have done nothing to stop the carnage. Who have failed to enact even the simplest of solutions, such as insisting that gun buyers get background checks.

The students were too few in number to make much of a difference. But they had the right idea. It’s clear that meaningful changes in the nation’s gun laws will not come from the top down. Which means that they must come from the bottom up.

This is one of those sociopolitical issues that demands a sociopolitical movement. That demands followers who refuse to settle for the status quo. That demands followers who take matters into their own hands. That demands followers who morph into leaders.


Putin Patrol Continued….

It’s possible you have to be of a certain age. Old enough to remember the Cold War and the fear that it would trigger a hot one. Old enough to remember Stalin and the fear that he would best Truman. Old enough to remember the Soviet Union and the fear that it had become the match of the United States. It’s possible, in other words, you have to be of a certain age to appreciate what Putin has accomplished.

For over a year I predicted that Russiagate would turn out a bigger political scandal than Watergate. But I did not predict that before it was all over the story would be less about Donald Trump than about Vladimir Putin.  Putin. The man of whom John McCain smartly said, “When I looked into [his] eyes I saw three letters, K, G, and B.”

For reasons we do not yet understand, Putin successfully emasculated Trump. Turned the American president from supposedly powerful leader into pusillanimous follower. But credit where credit is due. Putin pulled off a hat trick. He weakened NATO. He fractured Europe. And he upended the world’s oldest liberal democracy.


Leadership is Work. Hard Work. Very Hard Work

Germany’s largest labor union just secured for its 900,000 workers in the metals and electrical industries a 28-hour work week – down significantly from the previous 35. Workers who work 28 hours a week will be paid somewhat less than those who work 35. Nevertheless, the deal is said to reflect the new mindset among younger laborers. More than their predecessors, their interest is in securing a good work-life balance including, to take the most obvious example, time off for caregiving, whether of young children or elderly relatives.

While German unions are unusually strong and well-positioned, certainly in comparison with their now enfeebled American counterparts, abbreviated workweeks are a trend whose time has come, not only in Germany but elsewhere in the world as well. For reasons that range from demographics to economics to robotics, future workers will be on the job fewer hours than past and even present workers.

The implications of this change are enormous. They will affect countless millions in countless ways we have not yet even begun carefully to contemplate. What, for example, does the future look like for America’s two to three million truckers? Because of self-driving trucks, in a few years they will have less work, and in a few decades, they will have nearly no work.

To the general trend of less work for more people there will be some exceptions – leadership is one.  The dark and dirty secret of leadership is that the exercise of it is, typically, enormously demanding. Consuming even. Devouring of time and energy and physical and psychological resources. It’s why most leaders’ personal and professional coffers are left largely depleted of anything available to anyone else.

Let me put it this way. The likelihood that a workplace leader will emerge from among the hundreds of thousands of Germans who permanently avail themselves of the opportunity to work only 28 hours a week is slim.


Being a Mother, Being a Leader – Redux

In the last several months, I’ve written one chapter and posted several blogs on what I’ve found is a level of tension between being a mother and being a leader. My finding is grounded in nature not nurture, which renders it politically incorrect, which, in turn, marginalizes it. For it does indeed imply that women who are mothers have a hurdle that is difficult, if not impossible, entirely to surmount.

Because my finding is such a hard sell, I seek support wherever, whenever, and from whoever I can get it – most recently in a book by Melissa Schilling titled Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius Innovators Who Changed the World. Schilling writes about innovators who achieved multiple breakthroughs in science and technology – but of the eight cases she describes only one (Marie Curie) is a woman. Schilling tried to find more women who fit her criteria, but she could not.

In exploring the paucity of women innovators, Schilling writes that the “politically correct” cure for what historically has ailed us includes men and women dividing more equally responsibility for child care, and businesses and governments doing more to make affordable, quality child care widely accessible.

But she goes on to acknowledge, to admit really, that she for one did not want to relinquish her caregiving to others. “From the moment I first gave birth,” she writes, “I felt a deep, primal need to hold my children, nurture them and meet their needs.”*

Schilling hastens to add that having a strong maternal instinct does not preclude professional success. “But it might get in the way of having the almost maniacal focus that the most famous serial breakthrough innovators exhibit.”  Just as it might get in the way of having the almost maniacal focus that the most famous serial breakthrough leaders exhibit. Being a serial innovator and being a serial leader are, in other words, tasks so utterly consuming that they leave room for little if anything else. Such as, for example, parenting that is largely hands-on as opposed to largely hands-off.




Professionalizing Leadership* – Context is Critical, Says Kissinger

In Professionalizing Leadership, I write “I cannot at all understand why most leadership conversations and curricula exclude the conception of context. Why is so little attention paid to the development of contextual consciousness (being aware of the importance of context), of contextual expertise (being familiar with the components of context), and of contextual intelligence (being strategic about context to attain designated goals)?”

The question came to mind again yesterday, as I read Walter Russell Mead’s column in the Wall Street Journal, “A Word from Henry Kissinger.”  Mead was describing how when he recently agreed to become a regular contributor to the Journal, he went for advice to the dominant figure in American foreign policy in the last half century, Henry Kissinger. What, Mead wanted to know from the nonagenarian oracle, was his advice for the new columnist? “Mr. Kissinger,” Mead reports, “had only a word for me. What a column on international affairs should seek to provide, he said, is ‘context.’” In other words, what leaders need to know, the most important things that leaders need to know are contextual components such as “cultural and historical imperatives.”  Which is precisely why omitting context from learning to lead, from leadership education, is pure folly.

Mead continues: “When Mr. Kissinger advises a columnist to focus on ‘context,’  he is suggesting that there is value in helping readers to appreciate the kaleidoscopic variety and sometimes dizzying complexity of the forces at work on the international scene.” But, of course, the point is a broader one. The international scene is not the only context of “kaleidoscopic variety and sometimes dizzying complexity.” In fact, most leaders now find themselves in contexts that are complicated. So leader learner, here’s my two cents. Focus less on yourself and more on the circumstance within which you are situated!


*My latest book, Professionalizing Leadership (link below), was just released by Oxford University Press. From time to time my posts will focus on related topics.