Leadership in Germany

Americans’ obsession with the American president precludes attention to what’s happening elsewhere in the world. But, while the U.S. is burning, other countries are similarly struggling. I refer not only to tightening autocracies, but to wobbly democracies.

Germany is a case in point. For decades it has been an exemplar of democratic liberalism. A haven of stability and security. A bedrock of peace and prosperity.

In the recent past, though, not so much.

Germany’s private sector:

It’s impossible to exaggerate the stain of malignant malfeasance that continues to beleaguer Germany’s heretofore fabled car industry. The emissions cheating scandal that first broke almost three years ago at Volkswagen, ultimately revealed that some 11 million vehicles had been rigged with fraudulent software. Since then Volkswagen has canned its CEO, among other top executives, and has paid some $25 billion in penalties, fines, and compensations. Still the scandals continue. Just this week the chief executive of Audi (Volkswagen’s luxury brand) was arrested. And just this week the German Transport Ministry ordered Daimler to recall 774,000 vehicles, again because of “inadmissible” software related to emissions control. In sum, bad leadership in the German car industry has been endemic – and it continues to pollute.

Germany’s public sector:  

Chancellor Angela Merkel, now in her fourth term, initially enjoyed two terms of nearly unmitigated success. Then she survived a controversial third term to win a fourth. But now, in her last round, she is paying the piper. Merkel initially struggled for weeks even to cobble together what has already turned out a fragile coalition government. And now her ostensible partners are threatening to quit the coalition should she fail to bow to their wishes. In Germany, as in the US, the most contentious issue is immigration. In Germany though it’s gotten so bad that a couple of days ago Bavarian Conservatives nearly brought down the government. Moreover, the chancellor’s interior minister is giving his nominal boss just ten days to come to an asylum agreement with other European countries, lest he go off on his own to act unilaterally. In sum, the heyday of Germany’s most prominent and in many ways most successful post-war leader is over. This means that Germany will now look a lot like other liberal democracies – including the U. S. Germans like Americans and other Europeans will be up against the problem of how to govern when the old rules of cooperation and compromise are largely out the window.


When Followers are Enablers

The global obsession with President Donald J. Trump is unparalleled. In part because of changing culture, in part because of changing technology, and in part because of the man himself, never in history has a single individual so dominated our collective consciousness.

For students of leadership this poses particular perils. Given that Leadership Studies and Leadership Development anyway fixate on those at the top, our obsession with Trump seems to confirm this cognitive bias. However, for anyone who takes seriously the subject of leadership – seriously questions how power, authority, and influence actually are exercised – the critical, integral, essential and equal importance of followership has never been as starkly in evidence.

Setting aside policy differences and setting aside chronic violations of individual and institutional norms, Trump and his three oldest children are in any case mendacious, materialistic, and corrupt to the core. How do they get away with it? Because we – enough of us anyway – let them. Their enablers include but are not limited to:

  • Most Congressional Republicans.
  • Most so-called Conservatives.
  • Most past and present members of the current administration.
  • Enough members of the media.
  • Enough American voters.
  • Enough members of Trump’s personal, professional, and political inner circles.

Not all followers – not all enablers – are alike. Some simply stay silent. Others lend modest sustenance. Still others are rabid supporters – lending relentless credence to their cult-like complicity. The point is that Trump does not preside alone. He does so with the sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit support provided by countless others who are indispensable to his capacity to dominate the day.



Looking for Leaders? Look to Veterans!

There is no evidence so far that veterans have an advantage when they run for political office.  A study of congressional races from 2000 to 2014 showed that a having a military background had “no systemic, measurable effect” on electoral outcomes.

The question though is this: will this time be different? Will running as a veteran in the 2018 congressional elections prove advantageous in a way it has not previously?

I would bet yes. I would bet that the sea change in our political culture, and in our national discourse, will motivate voters to turn to candidates whose leadership skills are proven as opposed to promised. I would bet that in the time of Trump more Americans than not are disgusted with political leaders who are political amateurs.

In Professionalizing Leadership (Oxford, 2018) I wrote about how each of the armed services teaches how to lead in a way that civilians do not. In the military learning to lead is process that is far harder and longer, far better and richer, than it is on the outside.

Americans are not oblivious to this. On some level we understand that leadership, and for that matter followership, in the military are generally superior – which is precisely why the military is the single American institution that escapes our scorn. It is the single American institution that we still hold in consistently high esteem.

No surprise then that the large number of candidates who are veterans – – at least 28 female veterans are seeking House seats; another four are running for the Senate – are playing to their military background. In so doing they are playing to what Americans now see as their strength.


Leaders Lacking

What do CEOs lack when the ratio of their pay to the median pay of their employees is, say, 4,987 to 1 (Margaret Georgiadis), or 2,893 to 1 (Michael Rapino), or even 909 to 1 (Steve Wynn)?  Do they lack shame? Do they lack guilt? Do they lack empathy? Do they lack a simple sense of fairness? Or do they lack anything at all – anything in any case with which we should concern ourselves?

Maybe not. Maybe they lack nothing that’s any of our business. Maybe blaming them for charging what the market will bear is blaming the system – blaming capitalism. But… maybe yes. Maybe they do lack something that is our business, that does affect, infect, America’s body politic.

We know at least three big things. First, we know that Americans are as divided now as at any other time in recent history. Second, we know that Americans are split along several fault lines, one of which is class. And third we know that money, Big Money, has all sorts of insidious effects, including exacerbating our divisiveness and distorting our politics.

CEOs whose pay packages are astronomically high are hardly singlehandedly responsible for the economic and political fractionalization to which I allude. But when the few at the top allow themselves to be extravagantly well compensated, while the many at the bottom struggle to make ends meet, the former clearly contribute to our collective dis-ease.

One could argue, then, that too many chief executive officers lack moral outrage at the gross inequities from which they blatantly benefit. And, one could argue that too many chief exective officers lack political awareness – the awareness that by fueling unfairness they are fueling the dystopia that threatens America.





Pushed From His Perch – C. L. Max Nikias

The president of the University of Southern California, C. L. Max Nikias, has had what could legitimately be described as a successful tenure. He has been president for almost eight years and, according to the Los Angeles Times, his time in office was “marked by a significant boost in the university’s prestige and fundraising prowess.”  In addition to raising billions of dollars for USC, and using the money to recruit top students and hire top faculty, he pushed the university to see itself as an elite global institution. Moreover, he presided over its renovation and expansion, and extended its ties to China and the Pacific Rim.  What could go wrong?

Well, what could go wrong did. Specifically, key stakeholders came to conclude that USC had failed to respond promptly, publicly, and aggressively to several scandals, especially the most recent one, in which a gynecologist was accused of repeatedly abusing students. (Dr. George Tyndall had worked for decades at USC – he was the school’s only full-time gynecologist.)

What’s telling in this case – particularly for students of leadership and followership – is the trajectory of recent events. Even since the news broke about this last scandal, USC’s Board was dogged in its resistance to the cries of the crowd: it continued to reject the growing demand that Nikias be fired. In fact, as recently as last Tuesday – after 200 faculty members had called for Nikias to be replaced – the Board’s Executive Committee issued a statement saying that it had “full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values and is certain that he will successfully guide our community forward.”

But, a mere three days later, the Board completely reversed itself. It admitted that something was “broken,” and that “urgent and profound actions” were needed. It announced, moreover, that it would, presumably virtually immediately, “commence the process of selecting a new president.”

The case of C.L. Max Nikias recalls the case of Lawrence Summers, who in 2006 was obliged to resign as president of Harvard University. Both men were supremely well qualified to run supremely eminent universities. Both men ran into trouble that did not, initially, cause their boards to lose confidence. Both men staunchly and for some time resisted the growing calls for them to quit. But, when faculty become involved, when faculty members banded together to demand their resignations, both men were ultimately obliged by their boards to surrender their tenure. Seems that on those rather rare occasions when faculty are highly motivated to do their leaders in, chances are good they will succeed.



The Artist as Leader – Philip Roth

Note: This blog site has been down for the last three weeks. Today chatter about leadership and life resumes.

Great art – music and movies, poetry and prose, painting and sculpture – can be and not infrequently is, great leadership. Picasso’s powerful antiwar painting, “Guernica,” is an example; as is Dylan’s prescient tune, “The Times They Are A-Changin’;” as is Scorsese’s scorching film, “Wolf of Wall Street.” In each case the artist intended to shape how we thought and what we felt. In each case the artist succeeded, brilliantly, in exercising influence. And, in each case the work lingers – timeless and transcendent.

This week died another such artist – Philip Roth. The greatest American novelist of his generation – and one of the greatest American novelists ever – was, also, a leader. From the start he had his detractors – especially women who were offended by what they perceived to be his misogyny, and Jews who were offended by what they perceived to be his anti-Semitism (Roth as self-hating Jew). But from the start his impact on American literature, and on American culture more generally, was immense.

Sex, especially male sexuality, was a running theme, and, inevitably, a forcefield. So was being Jewish in America or being a Jewish American or being an American Jew. And so was politics. Roth in midlife especially – a period during which he was as febrile as fertile – dug deep into politics, turned politics into grist for his novelistic mill. An example is The Plot Against America (2004), which I single out because in sketching an alternative universe, in this case one in which America has gone fascist, Roth is eerily, scarily, anticipatory of the time in which we live. The time of Trump.

Roth has been described, variously, as protean, prolific, profound and, of course, profane. He was also funny, regularly and occasionally relentlessly if blackly funny, which is one of the traits that separates him from peers such as John Updike and Saul Bellow.  Updike and Bellow are in different ways peerless. But, curiously, their literary and cultural influence seems even now, not long after their deaths, to have waned. Roth. I predict, will escape that fate. I predict the impact of his art will forever endure.



The Tragedy of the Leadership Industry

Bad leadership in American politics has become as endemic as extreme. The President, along with some members of Congress, are violating every premise and principle on which conceptions of good leadership historically have been based.  Some are components of character – such as decency and integrity. Others are instruments of intelligence – such as information and ideas. Still others are parts of personality – such as flexibility and receptivity. Every one of these fundamentals – fundamentals of good leadership – has been tossed aside, ripped asunder by the tsunami that is the Trump presidency.

The tragedy of the “leadership industry” – my catchall term for the now countless leadership centers, institutes, programs, courses, seminars, workshops, experiences, trainers, books, blogs, article, websites, webinars, videos, conferences, consultants, and coaches that claim to teach people how to lead – is that it has nothing to say about any of this. Some forty years after its inception, the leadership industry still sees fit to focus its attention, laser-like, on how to grow good leaders, while it ignores entirely the perennial, pernicious problem of how to stop bad leaders.

One could argue that in good times this obsession with developing good leaders is understandable – if only because in professing to develop good leaders there’s good money to be made. But when times are bad – particularly when the president is as ignoble as ignorant – for the leadership industry to play ostrich is inexcusable. Indefensible.

Some day we – we who constitute the leadership industry – will pay a price for our unwillingness to educate people about bad leadership. And some day we will pay a price for our unwillingness to train followers how to upend bad leaders. Meantime the American experiment and experience remain under threat.


Another Leader Cut Down to Size

Less than a year ago Emmanuel Macron was the golden boy of Western politics. The youngest French president ever, he was good-looking and well-heeled, brilliant and bold, centrist leaning and forward looking. Macron was also strikingly ambitious. He successfully started his own political party. He successfully updated France’s political agenda. And he successfully fashioned a plan to revive and reinvigorate the European Union. For a brief shining moment Macron was the great Western hope – one of the few leaders of a liberal democracy likely to beat the odds. Likely to succeed where most of his counterparts had failed – in the exercise of leadership.

Now his future, and France’s, and Europe’s, are less clear. Because Western followers refuse to give Western leaders much if any slack, the bloom is already off Macron’s rose. His approval ratings have dropped. Strikes and demonstrations have tested his mettle. His former mentor, his predecessor, Francois Hollande, has trashed him in a new book. And in a recent interview on French television, two veteran journalists went out of their way to demean and diminish the president they purportedly planned politely to question.

Whatever history’s ultimate judgement on this young and clearly clever politician, we are to blame for putting our leaders on such a ridiculously short leash. If Macron fails to restore France to even a measure of its former glory, and if he fails to inject the European Union with a fresh sense of possibility and destiny, it will be less his loss than ours.

Two of the “Ten Greatest Leaders” are … Followers

Fortune magazine just announced its 2018 list of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” The top ten are:

  1. The Students (Marjory Stoneman Douglas and other schools)
  2. Bill and Melinda Gates (Cofounders, Gates Foundation)
  3. The #MeToo Movement
  4. Moon Jae-in (President, South Korea)
  5. Kenneth Frazier (CEO, Merck)
  6. Scott Gottlieb (FDA Commissioner)
  7. Margarethe Vestager (Commissioner for Competition, European Union)
  8. Larry Fink (CEO, BlackRock)
  9. General Joseph Dunford (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff)
  10. Liu He (Vice Premier, China)

What on this roster stands out? One could argue the dearth of people of color. One could argue the dearth of women. One could argue the dearth of non-Americans. Or, one could argue, as I do, the inclusion of groups. Groups who a few months ago had zero power, zero authority, and zero influence. Groups who morphed overnight from followers into leaders.

“The Students” – who remain mostly nameless – were, until they were not, ordinary kids, typical high schoolers, average followers. But in the equivalent of a New York minute they became leaders – leaders motivated by a mission created by a calamity.

The #MeToo Movement is similar. No single individual is identifiable as its leader. Rather it is a collective whose anger met the moment. Whose anger got channeled into social media. Whose anger found resonance among millions of others who had experienced sexual harassment but who felt too weak, too vulnerable, too disenfranchised to do anything about it.

The words “leader” and “follower” are fungible – though the moment when a follower becomes a leader, and a leader a follower, can be difficult to detect. Still, usually we know it when we see it. When those who previously were powerless join to vent their outrage clearly and consistently – and strategically – they can become powerful. Not always, but sometimes.


Focus on Followers – Hallelujah!

In the leadership literature the term “managing up” is reasonably common. But how subordinates should manage their superiors – particularly in the workplace – nevertheless gets short shrift. Which is curious, because the problem confronts people at every level. Low level employees fret about how they and their bosses relate – as do mid-level employees and indeed upper level ones. Still, we are so fixated on problems facing leaders that problems facing followers are largely ignored.

A welcome exception to this general rule is a recent article by Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Right and Wrong Ways to Manage Up.”* The article points out that the number of dollars spent on leadership training for mid-level managers has decreased, while the number of dollars spent on leadership training for senior level managers has increased This leaves most mid-level managers especially without much education or training of any kind – including lessons on how to manage those more highly positioned than they.

There is nothing in Shellenbarger’s article that leads you to believe that any of what constitutes how to manage up is rocket science. To the contrary. Most of the advice is no more than simple common sense. Still, some of the nuggets on how to communicate with, how to engage, those more highly positioned than you, will be useful to some of the people some of the time. At a minimum they focus attention on those in the middle who tend not to benefit one whit from the big bucks big business invests in the leadership industry.


* https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-right-and-wrong-way-to-manage-up-at-the-office-1523366792